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December 14, 2004

Pondering the link between sentencing policy and crime rates

Sequential posts at CrimProf Blog this morning — titled "Use of Death Penalty Dropped in '04 for Fifth Year in a Row" and "Crime Rates Decline in Early '04, FBI says" — has me thinking about the links (or lack of links) between sentencing policy and crime rates. 

There has long been, of course, a robust debate over whether and how the criminal law deters, but social scientists still struggle with more refined questions of whether and how marginal changes in sentence lengths and types may impact crime rates.  I find fairly compelling the conclusions of Professors Paul Robinson and John Darley from this recent paper's abstract:

There seems little doubt that having a criminal justice system that punishes violators, as every organized society has, does have an effect in influencing conduct. Having a punishment system does deter. But the evidence increasingly accumulates that there is little added deterrent effect that can be derived from the manipulation of criminal law rules for the distribution of criminal liability and punishment within that system.

I flag these issues in part because 2004 ought to be a uniquely rich and interesting time period for examining the relationship between sentencing policies and crime rates.  First, on the death penalty front, as noted here, 2004 has given us the first execution-free month in a decade and in the last few years we have seen nationwide declines the total number of death sentences and in the total number of executions.  And yet it appears that murder rates continue to decline even though we apparently are making less frequent use of capital punishment.

Second, in the non-capital sentencing arena, though the Blakely earthquake has had a profound impact on sentencing law and policy, I am inclined to doubt Blakely is having any real impact on crime rates.  Under rational deterrence theory, I think we should expect crimes rates in the second half of 2004 to rise in at least some jurisdictions: rational criminals doing cost-benefit analysis ought to realize that Blakely means it will be harder for those jurisdictions with constitutionally problematic guideline systems to impose long sentences.  But, especially for the most serious crimes, I do not think there are really any "rational criminals doing cost-benefit analysis."

Because I do not have any economics or social science training, I can do no more than spotlight these issues and hope that other folks much smarter than me start giving these matters serious attention.

December 14, 2004 at 10:12 AM | Permalink


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Alternatively, the criminal does a cost-benefit analysis but the cost of a 20 year sentence is not considered much higher than the cost of a 15 year sentence. Once a felony conviction and prison sentence have wrecked his life, the extra term doesn't mean so much.

There is good evidence that increased punishment does not deter drivers from breaking the law. They don't expect to get caught. Almost always, they are right.

Posted by: John F. Carr | Dec 14, 2004 1:39:29 PM


Murder rates increased in 2003, death verdicts dropped. 'nuf said. Executions are down in 2003 & 2004 due to the hard sacrifices of men & women like Sandra Babcock, Rob Owens, Ron Tabak & George Kendall who have given their lives & in many ways their most profitable / billable years to guaranteeing that he bill of rights means what it purports to stand for, that everyone is entitled to not only an attorney, but a g-d damn good one.

The death penalty is in rising disrepute due to to the rise in the pro-life right (which increasingly views opposition to the death penalty as a pro-life issue), high profile exonerations (such as Ray Krone & Juan Melendez) & the growing movement of murder victim family membes like Bud Welch, Bill Pelke & Renny Cushing who say simply not in my name.

Crime may be down, but murder is up.

- k

Posted by: karl | Dec 14, 2004 1:52:00 PM

It would be worthwhile to determine if there is a correlation between the rate of those feeling that the system doesn not administer justice (the system is unfair and/or based on ability to pay) and the crime rate.

It would also be worthwhile to study if there is a correlation of recidivism with criminals who receive sentences that are so long that family structure is destroyed and/or sentences that are punitive but short enough to allow an ex-felon to rebuild his place in his family/community.

Posted by: Jeannie | Dec 14, 2004 5:16:02 PM

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