In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Capital Punishment

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Data and Reference Resources
  • History
  • International and Comparative Perspectives
  • Race and the Death Penalty
  • Errors and Reversals in Death Sentences
  • Public Opinion
  • Social Structure, Culture, and Capital Punishment
  • Major US Supreme Court Cases

Criminology Capital Punishment
Richard Rosenfeld
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 December 2009
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0045


The death penalty is one of the most contentious issues in criminology and public policy, especially in the United States, which retains the death penalty and continues to execute capital offenders even though most other nations have abandoned capital punishment. Important criminological issues include historical and cross-cultural variation in the use of the death penalty; the objectives of capital punishment, including whether the death penalty deters homicide and meets the requirements of justice for victims and the society; the administration of the death penalty, including the role of race, errors and wrongful convictions in the sentencing process, and the cost of capital punishment; public opinion; and the influence of politics, culture, and social structure on public opinion and use of the death penalty. The literature on these and related topics is voluminous, and the focus here is on recent studies and works containing extensive reviews of past research.

General Overviews

Why has the death penalty persisted in the United States while most other nations have discontinued its use as a criminal sanction? Does capital punishment deter homicides? Can it be justified on legal or moral grounds? Is the sentencing process for capital crimes fundamentally flawed? Is the application of the death penalty racially biased? How has public opinion on capital punishment changed over time? Bedau and Cassell 2004, an edited volume, addresses these questions by presenting arguments for and against capital punishment. Radelet and Borg 2000 proposes that the results of social science research on these and related issues have changed the terms of the debate over capital punishment and will contribute to its eventual abolition in the United States. Bohm 2007 and Paternoster, et al. 2007 summarize the issues in ways suitable for classroom use. Haney 2005 argues that the death penalty has persisted in the United States because the general public is disengaged from its practice and outcomes. Sarat 1999 examines the political and cultural supports for capital punishment. Lanier, et al. 2009 is an exceptionally comprehensive edited volume covering research on deterrence, procedural flaws in sentencing, public opinion, racial bias, and other aspects of the death penalty. The final chapter presents an agenda for future research that should be read by anyone contemplating research on capital punishment.

  • Bedau, Hugo Adam, and Paul Cassell, eds. 2004. Debating the death penalty: Should America have capital punishment? New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Thoughtful perspectives favoring and opposing capital punishment in the United States. Issues addressed include the morality and deterrent effects of capital punishment, wrongful convictions, race and the death penalty, and the persistence of the death penalty in the United States as other nations have abolished capital punishment.

  • Bohm, Robert M. 2007. Deathquest II: An introduction to the theory and practice of capital punishment in the United States. 3d ed. Newark, NJ: Matthew Bender.

    Addresses the history of capital punishment in the United States, Supreme Court decisions affecting the use of the death penalty, deterrence research, wrongful convictions and sentences for capital crimes, the effects of capital punishment on victims’ families, and public attitudes toward the death penalty. Suitable for undergraduate courses in criminology.

  • Haney, Craig. 2005. Death by design: Capital punishment as a social psychological system. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Examines the social-psychological processes that disengage and distance citizens from the process and outcomes of sentencing persons to death. Considers the interrelated roles of the media, jury selection, capital trials, and other factors in maintaining a flawed and unjust death sentencing system.

  • Lanier, Charles S., William J. Bowers, and James R. Acker, eds. 2009. The future of America’s death penalty: An agenda for the next generation of capital punishment research. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

    Comprehensive coverage by leading researchers of constitutional issues related to the death penalty, race and ethnic disparities in capital sentencing, execution methods, clemency and death penalty moratoria, deterrence effects, alternative sanctions, and impacts on the families of offenders and victims. Includes extensive coverage of prior research, a presentation of new research findings, and an agenda for future data collection and research.

  • Paternoster, Raymond, Robert Brame, and Sarah Bacon. 2007. The death penalty: America’s experience with capital punishment. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Addresses the history of the death penalty in the United States; changes in capital crimes, sentencing, and execution methods; the influence of race; the moral and legal arguments; errors and flaws in sentencing; public opinion; international law and practice; and the future of the death penalty. Suitable for upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses.

  • Radelet, Michael L., and Marian J. Borg. 2000. The changing nature of death penalty debates. Annual Review of Sociology 26:43–61.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.soc.26.1.43

    Discusses changes in arguments for and against the death penalty stemming from social science research on the deterrent effects of the death penalty, flaws in the sentencing process, the disclosure of innocence, racial bias, and public opinion. The authors suggest that the evolving debate over the death penalty points to the eventual abolition of capital punishment in the United States.

  • Sarat, Austin, ed. 1999. The killing state: Capital punishment in law, politics, and culture. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Provocative essays on the politics and cultural currents underlying the persistence of capital punishment in the United States. The volume’s editor is a leading opponent of the death penalty.

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