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More Time, Less Crime

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The latest issue of the Journal of Law and Economics is in my inbox this morning. It includes Emily G. Owens, More Time, Less Crime? Estimating the Incapacitative Effect of Sentence Enhancements, 52 J. Law & Econ. 551 (2009). Here is the abstract:

Sentence enhancements may reduce crime both by deterring potential criminals and by incapacitating previous offenders, removing these possible recidivists from society for longer periods. I estimate the incapacitative effect of longer sentences by exploiting a 2001 change in Maryland's sentencing guidelines that reduced the sentences of 23‐, 24‐, and 25‐year‐olds with juvenile delinquent records by a mean of 222 days. I find that, during this sentence disenhancement, offenders were, on average, arrested for 2.8 criminal acts and were involved in 1.4-1.6 serious crimes per person during the period when they would have otherwise been incarcerated. Although my findings are significantly lower than previous estimates of incapacitation, I find that, on the margin, the social benefit of the crimes averted by incapacitation is slightly higher than the marginal cost to the state of imposing a 1‐year sentence enhancement.

The only surprise here is "slightly." If keeping 10 recidivists locked up for an additional 222 days each prevents 28 crimes, 15 of which are "serious," that would seem to be well worth the cost.

On page 569, Owens acknowledges that the estimate of the cost of crime she is using may be a lowball. "More recent studies (Cohen et al. 2004; Rockoff and Linden 2006) have suggested that the social cost of crime may be significantly higher."

Even with the low-end estimate of the cost of crime, Owens finds recidivist enhancements to be cost-effective on the incapacitation effect alone. Add the deterrent effect, see, e.g. Kessler & Levitt, Using Sentence Enhancements to Distinguish between Deterrence and Incapacitation, 42 J. Law & Econ. 353 (1999), on top of that, and the case is clear.

Letting habitual criminals out to save money is penny wise and pound foolish.

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"Letting habitual criminals out to save money is penny wise and pound foolish."

Unfortunately, it is worse than simply foolish. It is a fundamental abdication of one of the basic obligations of a government--public safety. And given the fact that any one of common sense has to know that releasing criminals will result in victimization, it is profoundly immoral.

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