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Are Fines and Prison Terms Used Efficiently? Evidence on Federal Fraud Offenders


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  • Waldfogel, Joel


Optimal penalty theory predicts that, because imprisonment is costly and fines are costless, fines will be used to the maximum extent possible before they are supplemented with imprisonment. If criminal procedure functions as a market system, as some observers have suggested, then optimizing models of sanctions may be viewed as positive and not just normative descriptions of criminal sentencing. This article examines the use of fines and prison terms to punish federal fraud offenders. We find that prison terms depend strongly and positively on harms, while fines depend strongly and positively on ability to pay. In addition, individuals punished with higher fines receive shorter prison terms, a finding that supports efficient punishment over some of its alternatives. These results demonstrate optimizing tendencies in sentencing, even if not optimality itself. Copyright 1995 by the University of Chicago.

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Bibliographic Info

Article provided by University of Chicago Press in its journal Journal of Law & Economics.

Volume (Year): 38 (1995)
Issue (Month): 1 (April)
Pages: 107-39

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Handle: RePEc:ucp:jlawec:v:38:y:1995:i:1:p:107-39

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Cited by:
  1. Dominique Demougin & Stephane Pallage, 2000. "Limiting Court Behavior: A Case for High Minimum Sentences and Low Maximum Ones," Cahiers de recherche CREFE / CREFE Working Papers 101, CREFE, Université du Québec à Montréal.
  2. Levitt, Steven D., 1997. "Incentive compatibility constraints as an explanation for the use of prison sentences instead of fines," International Review of Law and Economics, Elsevier, vol. 17(2), pages 179-192, June.
  3. Kenneth Avio, 1998. "The Economics of Prisons," European Journal of Law and Economics, Springer, vol. 6(2), pages 143-175, September.
  4. Einat, Tomer, 2008. "Sentencing rationales, judicial discretion, and the practice of criminal fines in Israel," Journal of Criminal Justice, Elsevier, vol. 36(5), pages 444-452, September.
  5. Jose Meade & Joel Waldfogel, 1998. "Do Sentencing Guidelines Raise the Cost of Punishment?," NBER Working Papers 6361, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.


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