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November 21, 2022

"Punishment Externalities and the Prison Tax"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Sheldon Evans now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

Punishment as a social institution has failed to live up to the quixotic ideals of theory and has descended into the practice of mass incarceration, which is one of the defining failures of this generation.  Scholars have traditionally studied punishment and incarceration as parts of a social transaction between the criminal offender, whose crime imposes a cost to society, and the state that ensures the offender repays this debt by correcting past harms and preventing future offenses.  But if crime has a cost that must be repaid by the offender, punishment also has a cost that must be repaid by the state.  These social costs of punishment start by impacting the offender, but inevitably ripple out into the community.

While the costs of crime remain a predominant theme in criminal justice, scholars have also recorded the economic, political, and social costs of punishment.  This Article contributes to this literature by proposing a paradigm shift in punishment theory that reconceptualizes punishment as an industry that produces negative externalities.  The externality framework recognizes punishment and its practice of mass incarceration as an institution that purports certain benefits, but also must be balanced with the overwhelming social costs it produces in the community.

Viewing punishment and the carceral state as an externality problem that accounts for community costs creates a unique synergy between law & economics and communitarianism that deepens punishment theory while carrying the practical value of exploring externality-based solutions.  This Article argues for a Pigouvian prison tax, among other externality solutions, that will gradually lower the prison population while reinvesting revenue in the most impacted communities to mitigate punishment’s social costs in future generations.

November 21, 2022 at 11:14 AM | Permalink


The “community costs” responsibility is on the shoulders of mass criminality, not incarceration. Joe knew that Joe Jr. would be raised without a daddy when he committed the crime. It’s no secret that prison is a likely outcome and Joe did it anyway. He harmed his own child.

We should have learned this as children. It wasn’t my dad’s fault I couldn’t do something fun when I was grounded for coming home late. That was on me.

It’s no surprise, however, that any lemming using the “mass incarceration” phrase didn’t get that lesson of personal responsibility.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Nov 25, 2022 12:19:38 PM

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