Brutalization Hypothesis Essay

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There are many lively debates surrounding the ethics, efficacacies, and policy implications of capital punishment—especially pertaining to the question of whether capital punishment serves as an effective deterrent to crime. Most social science research suggests that there is no significant deterrent effect, and some research indicates that capital punishment may even have a brutalizing effect on the population at large. The brutalization hypothesis states that the death penalty lessens people’s respect for life, and as a result actually lowers their inhibitions to kill. It in effect legitimizes murder, which inadvertently leads to an increase in homicides. Stated differently: Violence encourages violence. Thus, the brutalization hypothesis stands in direct contradiction to the deterrence hypothesis.

The argument that capital punishment deters others from committing murder has historically been one of the strongest justifications for the practice. This especially holds true for politicians advocating “get tough on crime” approaches. The Supreme Court noted in its 1976 landmark decision Gregg v. Georgia that deterrence was one of the main purposes of this ultimate penalty. There has been much research investigating whether capital punishment actually deters acts of murder or brutalizes society as a whole. Research on the question is split. Most economic studies imply there is in fact a deterrent effect, but these studies typically use an average for the whole nation rather than state-level data. Most research by sociologists or law professors, whether based on single states or regions, shows mixed results. For instance, a study of all death penalty states demonstrated that of the 27 states that had at least one public execution between 1977 and 1996, six states showed a decrease in homicide rates after an execution, but 13 states experienced an increase. Thus, the brutalization effect was observed in the majority of states studied, but it should be noted that in some states there appeared to be some deterrent effect. Studies in Oklahoma and California showed both a deterrent and brutalization effect after a publicized execution. Brutalization effects were especially pronounced for “stranger homicides,” while there was a noticeable deterrent effect for nonstranger homicides.

Overall, research on the brutalization hypothesis observed its effect mainly for stranger homicides, argumentation homicides, and for offenders who believed that their life circumstances were somehow fundamentally unfair. First, there was no brutalization effect found for nonstranger homicides and relationship homicides. It appears that the brutalization effect is dependent upon the victim–offender relationship. Stronger social ties seem to work as a deterrent to homicide, whereas the absence of social ties allows for a more pronounced brutalizing effect.

Another factor that serves as a brutalizer is the ongoing public dehumanization of offenders, especially those who commit murders. Murderers are often portrayed as animals, or evil beasts, who obviously deserve to die. Some researchers have termed this media phenomenon the “beastly effect.” They contend this beastly effect contributes to an increased level of violence in society, especially when it comes to arguments between strangers. An argument that typically would result in only a simple assault or physical fight— with the added factor of this generalized dehumanizing perception of wrongdoers, exacerbated by the spectacle of publicized executions—is more likely to result in the death of one of the parties involved. Studies found that when such arguments occur shortly after an execution, a deadly escalation is even more likely.

Researchers observed a brutalization effect on offenders who believed they had been wronged, that is: “being wronged” serves as a justification for the killing of another person. Essentially, the state’s reasoning is applied at the private level: If the state can execute a person who has harmed someone else, then an individual is justified in executing someone who has harmed them or someone close to them. The state sets an example that killing a human being is a legitimate practice under certain circumstances, which policy then carries over into people’s private domains and beliefs.

The brutalization effect is not limited to repercussions of the death penalty alone. Recent research has found a brutalization effect due to large increases in incarceration rates. There appears to be a point at which any increase in the numbers incarcerated has a consequent and undesired impact on the crime rate. Specifically, high incarceration rates in a neighborhood tend to lead to eventual increased criminal activity in that neighborhood and surrounding areas. For instance, research from Tallahassee, Florida, found that the Frenchtown neighborhood had the highest incarceration rates in the city, and its crime rates were increasing. The neighborhood had reached a tipping point wherein the high rates of incarcerated residents resulted in an increased brutalization effect.

Two causal factors have been advanced for this outcome. First is a learned perception among the children and youth of that neighborhood, similar to the effect of public executions discussed earlier with regard to increased incidence of argument-based homicides. The young in Frenchtown came to perceive prison as an inevitable part of life, and thus fully expected to be incarcerated at some point. For them, black males spending time in prison became the norm. Second, brutalization is an unavoidable side effect of the prison experience itself. The constant and inevitable violence aggravated by the conditions of deprivation while in prison “hardens” most inmates and subsequently decreases their willingness to comply with the norms of society. Thus another unintended consequence—an increasing crime rate—results from the increased conviction of more and more offenders whose often violent prison experience then contributes to increased levels of lawlessness and violence in their home neighborhoods.


  1. Bailey, W. C. “Deterrence, Brutalization, and the Death Penalty: Another Examination of Oklahoma’s Return to Capital Punishment.” Criminology, v.36/4 (1998).
  2. Cochran, J. K., M. B.Chamlin, and M. Seth. “Deterrence or Brutalization: An Impact Assessment of Oklahoma’s Return to Capital Punishment.” Criminology, v.32 (1994).
  3. Fletcher, M. A. “High Incarceration Rate May Fuel Community Crime.” Washington Post (July 12, 1999).
  4. Pritkin, M. “Is Prison Increasing Crime?” Wisconsin Law Review, v.2008/6 (2008).
  5. Shephard, J. M. “Deterrence Versus Brutalization: Capital Punishment’s Differing Impacts Among States.” Michigan Law Review, v.104 (2005).

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