Criminal Injustice: Economists Better at Understanding Imprisonment


Libertarian Reason magazine devotes its July issue to “Criminal Injustice,” a series of articles exploring problems in the U.S. justice system. In one article, “Prison Math,” Veronique de Rugy of George Mason University asks, “Why are American incarceration rates so high by international standards, and why have they increased so much during the last three decades?” It wasn’t just a rise in crime, but tougher sentencing laws clearly played a big role. “Housing nonviolent, victimless offenders with violent criminals for years on end can't possibly help them reintegrate into society, which helps explain why four out of 10 released prisoners end up back in jail within three years of their release,” de Rugy says.

Examining several academic studies, de Rugy concludes that, “the benefit of incarceration is probably small, especially compared to the high cost of locking people up.” She says, “Fortunately, economists are getting better at understanding how to keep people out of jail.” University of California -Santa Barbara economist Jeff Grogger found large deterrent effects from increased certainty of punishment and much smaller, generally insignificant effects from increased severity. Such findings call into question the economic rationality of increasingly long prison terms, de Rugy says.


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