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

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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  1. 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.
  2. J. Giertz & Peter Nardulli, 1985. "Prison overcrowding," Public Choice, Springer, vol. 46(1), pages 71-78, January.
  3. Gary S. Becker, 1974. "Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach," NBER Chapters, in: Essays in the Economics of Crime and Punishment, pages 1-54 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. A. Mitchell Polinsky & Steven Shavell, 1982. "The Optimal Use of Fines and Imprisonment," NBER Working Papers 0932, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
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