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Skip to 0 minutes and 1 second So far, I kept saying we are interested in whether imposing more severe punishment can reduce crime, and if so, by how much. But often times, it’s not straightforward what it means by imposing more severe punishment. Part of the problem is that there are different types of punishment. For example, if you break a criminal law in the United States, depending on which law you broke, you may be subject to active sentencing in prison, fines, probation, community service, drug counseling, or some combination of these punishment. So when we say “imposing more severe punishment”, we may refer to a case where we increase the amount of fines and length of community service for individuals who commit minor violations.

Skip to 0 minutes and 47 seconds Or we may refer to a case where we impose the active sentencing in prison, instead of fines and probation on offenders who commit relatively minor offenses. Or we may refer to a case where a criminal who should have been put in prison for 10 years will now be put in prison for 20 years. And the social gains and costs associated with these three policy changes will be all different. The bottom line is that the gains and costs of imposing more severe penalties on criminals will be dependent on the specific contexts of the policy. In any case, incarceration is the primary form of punishment imposed on criminals who commit serious crimes. Incarceration is associated with important social gains and costs.

Skip to 1 minute and 38 seconds Let’s talk about the gains first. First and foremost, putting criminals behind bars makes it impossible for them to commit new crimes at least when they are in prison. Second, imposing severe punishment on such criminals may discourage other potential criminals from committing the same crime. Economists are very much interested in understanding and quantifying these two effects, by which more severe punishment can improve public safety. On the other hand, we also know incarceration has its costs as well. The direct cost of incarceration of course includes the cost of building and maintaining prison facilities, hiring prison staffs, and providing inmates with basic necessities, job training, and education. But there are other, more indirect costs of incarceration as well.

Skip to 2 minutes and 32 seconds Inmates may lose their work skills when they are in prison, so that when they are released, they may have a low chance of finding a job. Their interaction with other inmates may help them build criminal skills and connections, increasing their chances of recidivism. Lastly, when a criminal is locked up, his family members may incur heavy emotional, psychological, and economic losses. All these losses should be taken into account when comparing the costs and gains of incarceration.

Punishment severity and crime

Consider the following examples of real-life “get-tough-sentencing” policy reforms:

1) imposing jail terms for reckless driving instead of fines

2) imposing an automatic prison sentence for a major parole violation

3) mandatory 25-year-to-life prison sentences for offenders with multiple serious criminal convictions.

Do you think these reforms would be effective in reducing crime? Can you think of other examples of tougher sentencing reforms?

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Economics of Crime

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