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October 31, 2012

"The Imprisoner’s Dilemma: A Cost Benefit Approach to Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this paper by David Abrams and available on SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

Depriving an individual of life or liberty is one of the most intrusive powers that governments wield. Decisions about imprisonment capture the public imagination. The stories are told daily in newspapers and on TV, dramatized in literature and on film, and debated by scholars.  The United States has created an ever-increasing amount of material for discussion as the state incarceration rate quadrupled between 1980 and 2000.  While the decision to incarcerate an individual is given focused attention by a judge, prosecutor, and (occasionally) a jury, the overall incarceration rate is not.

In this article, I apply a cost-benefit approach to incarceration with the goal of informing public policy.  An excessive rate of incarceration not only deprives individuals of freedom, but also costs the taxpayers large amounts of money.  Too little imprisonment harms society in a different way -- through costs to victims and even non-victims who must increase precautions to avoid crime.  Striking the right balance of costs and benefits is what good law and public policy strive for.

Changes to the inmate population may be made in several different ways.  One insight that I stress in this article is that the precise form of a proposed incarceration policy change is crucial to properly evaluating the impact of the change.  Therefore, I analyze several potential policy changes and their implications for sentencing and imprisonment. The calculations are informed by recent empirical work on the various ways in which imprisonment impacts overall welfare.  I find that the benefits of limited one-time prisoner releases, as well as the reclassification of some crimes exceed the costs.

October 31, 2012 at 07:26 PM | Permalink


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Small problem. 95% of adjudicated charges are fictitious, often unrelated to the original actus reus. Mass releases based on adjudicated charges cannot be correlated with any empirical outcomes, since they do not exist. Is there a reason faculty in a top law school is putting out this garbage science? Yes, to justify the mass releases of the friend of lawyer employment, the repeat violent offender. Only data based on the original indictment charge may be used in future studies. I understand the truism of the looseness of being able to indict a ham sandwich. But we know, at least, that original charge had evidence enough behind it to force a plea deal.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Nov 1, 2012 1:31:07 AM

I see the biggest problem in the second paragraph where the writer suggests that too much incarceration costs the taxpayers and too little incarceration, well, costs the taxpayers...
If the "cost" to the taxpayers is the only problem with the exponentially increased incarceration rate, then the matter should be relatively easy to solve. However, I don't believe this is the case...
In fact, some of the biggest issues that mass incarceration affects may include: the economy, political agenda, subversion of the Constitution, shifting power away from the population and forming a pseudo-aristocracy (a "demistrocracy" perhaps?)... That's to say nothing of the hysteria, assumptions, innuendo and other mayhem that come from being branded a criminal. Many "crimes" that land a person in prison affected nobody but themselves and the established assumption of morality!
Still, it should be said that incarceration doesn't necessarily prevent crime. If that is the premise of this thesis, then it is a load of bull!

Posted by: NP45143112 | Nov 1, 2012 11:30:23 AM

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