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Limiting Court Behavior: A Case for High Minimum Sentences and Low Maximum Ones

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We model a simple justice system in which a court is mandated by society to assess the guilt and the punishment of an accused. The court takes prison facilities as given and neglects its impact on the cost to society of implementing the sentence. Clearly, the court, in this world, will condemn more often than society and assign higher penalties. Under these circumstances, society at large would necessarily benefit from having maximum sentences. We show, however, as a series of perverse results, that (1) maximum penalties need to be lower than the highest socially desirable penalty; (2) society would benefit from imposing high minimum sentences even though it is precisely the harshness of courts, which it wants to curb.

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Paper provided by CREFE, Université du Québec à Montréal in its series Cahiers de recherche CREFE / CREFE Working Papers with number 101.

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Length: 17 pages
Date of creation: Jan 2000
Date of revision:
Publication status: forthcoming (latest version), International Review of Law and Economics
Handle: RePEc:cre:crefwp:101

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Keywords: Maximum and minimum penalties; sentencing guidelines; social optimum;

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  1. J. Giertz & Peter Nardulli, 1985. "Prison overcrowding," Public Choice, Springer, vol. 46(1), pages 71-78, January.
  2. Rasmusen, Eric, 1995. "How optimal penalties change with the amount of harm," International Review of Law and Economics, Elsevier, vol. 15(1), pages 101-108, January.
  3. Gary S. Becker, 1968. "Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 76, pages 169.
  4. Polinsky, A. Mitchell & Shavell, Steven, 1984. "The optimal use of fines and imprisonment," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 24(1), pages 89-99, June.
  5. Waldfogel, Joel, 1995. "Are Fines and Prison Terms Used Efficiently? Evidence on Federal Fraud Offenders," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 38(1), pages 107-39, April.
  6. Polinsky, Mitchell & Shavell, Steven, 1979. "The Optimal Tradeoff between the Probability and Magnitude of Fines," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 69(5), pages 880-91, December.
  7. John J. DiIulio, 1996. "Help Wanted: Economists, Crime and Public Policy," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 10(1), pages 3-24, Winter.
  8. David Friedman, 1999. "Why Not Hang Them All: The Virtues of Inefficient Punishment," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 107(S6), pages S259-S269, December.
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Cited by:
  1. Bruno Deffains & Roberto Galbiati & Sebastien Rouillon, 2009. "Punishment should fit the crime: an assessment of the French reform of minimum mandatory penalties," Portuguese Economic Journal, Springer, vol. 8(3), pages 161-175, December.

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