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