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The Effect of Prison Population Size on Crime Rates: Evidence From Prison Overcrowding Litigation

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  • Steven D. Levitt

Abstract

Previous studies of the impact of changes in prisoner populations on crime rates have failed to adequately control for the simultaneity between those two variables. While increases in the number of prisoners are likely to reduce crime, rising crime rates also translate into larger prison populations. To break that simultaneity, this paper uses the status of prison overcrowding litigation in a state as an instrument for changes in the prison population. Overcrowding litigation is demonstrated to have a negative impact on prison populations, but is unlikely to be related to fluctuations in the crime rate, except through its effect on prison populations. Instrumenting results in estimates of the elasticity of crime with respect to the number of prisoners that are two to three times greater than previous studies. The results are robust across all of the crime categories examined. For each one-prisoner reduction induced by prison overcrowding litigation, the total number of crimes committed increases by approximately 15 per year. The social benefit from eliminating those 15 crimes is approximately $45,000; the annual per prisoner costs of incarceration are roughly $30,000.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 5119.

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Date of creation: May 1995
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Publication status: published as Quarterly Journal of Economics, May 1996, vol.111, pp.319-352.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:5119

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  1. Waldfogel, Joel, 1993. "Criminal Sentences as Endogenous Taxes: Are They "Just" or "Efficient"?," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 36(1), pages 139-51, April.
  2. Waldfogel, Joel, 1994. "Does conviction have a persistent effect on income and employment?," International Review of Law and Economics, Elsevier, vol. 14(1), pages 103-119, March.
  3. Schmidt, Peter & Witte, Ann Dryden, 1989. "Predicting criminal recidivism using 'split population' survival time models," Journal of Econometrics, Elsevier, vol. 40(1), pages 141-159, January.
  4. Steven D. Levitt, 1995. "Using Electoral Cycles in Police Hiring to Estimate the Effect of Policeon Crime," NBER Working Papers 4991, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  5. Ehrlich, Isaac, 1981. "On the Usefulness of Controlling Individuals: An Economic Analysis of Rehabilitation, Incapacitation, and Deterrence," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 71(3), pages 307-22, June.
  6. Martin Feldstein, 1999. "Tax Avoidance And The Deadweight Loss Of The Income Tax," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 81(4), pages 674-680, November.
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    by Tyler Cowen in Marginal Revolution on 2011-05-24 18:02:54
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