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Crime, punishment, and prejudice

  • Curry, Philip A.
  • Klumpp, Tilman

We examine the link between the penalties used to punish convicted criminals and judicial prejudice against defendants. In our model, agents choose to commit crimes if their privately observed utility from doing so is high enough. A crime generates noisy evidence, and defendants are convicted when the realized amount of evidence is sufficiently strong to establish the probability of guilt beyond a fixed threshold. We show that if convicted offenders are incarcerated, poorer individuals face a strong prior prejudice in trials and are therefore convicted with less evidence than richer individuals. At the same time, they commit crimes more frequently. Penalties such as monetary fines can eliminate this bias, but may also reverse it. We fully characterize the penalty schedule that guarantees an unbiased equilbrium. We extend the model such that agents also differ in characteristics such as race or gender. We show biased outcomes (targeted at subgroups of the population) may still exist, even if all members of the population are ex-ante alike in their economic characteristics.

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Article provided by Elsevier in its journal Journal of Public Economics.

Volume (Year): 93 (2009)
Issue (Month): 1-2 (February)
Pages: 73-84

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Handle: RePEc:eee:pubeco:v:93:y:2009:i:1-2:p:73-84
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  1. David Bjerk, 2004. "Racial Profiling, Statistical Discrimination, and the Effect of a Colorblind Policy on the Crime Rate," Department of Economics Working Papers 2004-11, McMaster University.
  2. Gary S. Becker, 1968. "Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 76, pages 169.
  3. Holzer, Harry J & Raphael, Steven & Stoll, Michael A, 2006. "Perceived Criminality, Criminal Background Checks, and the Racial Hiring Practices of Employers," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 49(2), pages 451-80, October.
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  5. 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.
  6. Verdier, Thierry & Zenou, Yves, 2003. "Racial Beliefs, Location and the Causes of Crime," Working Paper Series 602, Research Institute of Industrial Economics.
  7. Sah, Raaj K, 1991. "Social Osmosis and Patterns of Crime," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 99(6), pages 1272-95, December.
  8. Raphael, Steven & Winter-Ebmer, Rudolf, 1999. "Identifying the Effect of Unemployment on Crime," CEPR Discussion Papers 2129, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  9. repec:oup:qjecon:v:98:y:1983:i:1:p:157-66 is not listed on IDEAS
  10. Nicola Persico, 2002. "Racial Profiling, Fairness, and Effectiveness of Policing," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 92(5), pages 1472-1497, December.
  11. Daniel Nagin & Joel Waldfogel, 1993. "The Effect of Convicton on Income Through the Life Cycle," NBER Working Papers 4551, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  12. Lott, John R, Jr, 1992. "An Attempt at Measuring the Total Monetary Penalty from Drug Convictions: The Importance of an Individual's Reputation," The Journal of Legal Studies, University of Chicago Press, vol. 21(1), pages 159-87, January.
  13. Emons, Winand, 2007. "Escalating penalties for repeat offenders," International Review of Law and Economics, Elsevier, vol. 27(2), pages 170-178.
  14. Phelps, Edmund S, 1972. "The Statistical Theory of Racism and Sexism," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 62(4), pages 659-61, September.
  15. Jeff Grogger, 1997. "Market Wages and Youth Crime," NBER Working Papers 5983, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  16. A. Mitchell Polinsky & Steven Shavell, 1999. "The Economic Theory of Public Enforcement of Law," NBER Working Papers 6993, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  17. Coate, Stephen & Loury, Glenn C, 1993. "Will Affirmative-Action Policies Eliminate Negative Stereotypes?," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 83(5), pages 1220-40, December.
  18. Bar-Ilan, Avner & Sacerdote, Bruce, 2004. "The Response of Criminals and Noncriminals to Fines," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 47(1), pages 1-17, April.
  19. Georgakopoulos, Nicholas L., 2004. "Self-fulfilling impressions of criminality: unintentional race profiling," International Review of Law and Economics, Elsevier, vol. 24(2), pages 169-190, June.
  20. 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.
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