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

  • Levitt, Steven D

Simultaneity between prisoner populations and crime rates makes it difficult to isolate the causal effect of changes in prison populations on crime. To break that simultaneity, this paper uses prison overcrowding litigation in a state as an instrument for changes in the prison population. The resulting elasticities are two to three times greater than those of previous studies. A one-prisoner reduction is associated with an increase of fifteen Index I crimes per year. While calculations of the costs of crime are inherently uncertain, it appears that the social benefits associated with crime reduction equal or exceed the social costs of incarceration for the marginal prisoner. Copyright 1996, the President and Fellows of Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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Article provided by MIT Press in its journal Quarterly Journal of Economics.

Volume (Year): 111 (1996)
Issue (Month): 2 (May)
Pages: 319-51

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Handle: RePEc:tpr:qjecon:v:111:y:1996:i:2:p:319-51
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  1. Martin Feldstein, 1995. "Tax Avoidance and the Deadweight Loss of the Income Tax," NBER Working Papers 5055, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  2. Levitt, Steven D, 1997. "Using Electoral Cycles in Police Hiring to Estimate the Effect of Police on Crime," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 87(3), pages 270-90, June.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  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. 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.
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