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I'd rather be Hanged for a Sheep than a Lamb: The Unintended Consequences of 'Three-Strikes' Laws

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  • Radha Iyengar

Abstract

Strong sentences are common "tough on crime" tool used to reduce the incentives for individuals to participate in criminal activity. However, the design of such policies often ignores other margins along which individuals interested in participating in crime may adjust. I use California's Three Strikes law to identify several effects of a large increase in the penalty for a broad set of crimes. Using criminal records data, I estimate that Three Strikes reduced participation in criminal activity by 20 percent for second-strike eligible offenders and a 28 percent decline for third-strike eligible offenders. However, I find two unintended consequences of the law. First, because Three Strikes flattened the penalty gradient with respect to severity, criminals were more likely to commit more violent crimes. Among third-strike eligible offenders, the probability of committing violent crimes increased by 9 percentage points. Second, because California's law was more harsh than the laws of other nearby states, Three Strikes had a "beggar-thy-neighbor" effect increasing the migration of criminals with second and third-strike eligibility to commit crimes in neighboring states. The high cost of incarceration combined with the high cost of violent crime relative to non-violent crime implies that Three Strikes may not be a cost-effective means of reducing crime.

Suggested Citation

  • Radha Iyengar, 2008. "I'd rather be Hanged for a Sheep than a Lamb: The Unintended Consequences of 'Three-Strikes' Laws," NBER Working Papers 13784, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:13784
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    Cited by:

    1. Ana Maria Ibanez & Catherine Rodriguez & David Zarruk, 2013. "Crime, Punishment, and Schooling Decisions: Evidence from Colombian Adolescents," Research Department Publications IDB-WP-413, Inter-American Development Bank, Research Department.
    2. Aperjis, Christina & Zeckhauser, Richard J. & Miao, Yali, 2014. "Variable temptations and black mark reputations," Games and Economic Behavior, Elsevier, vol. 87(C), pages 70-90.
    3. Radha Iyengar & Jonathan Monten & Matthew Hanson, 2011. "Building Peace: The Impact of Aid on the Labor Market for Insurgents," NBER Working Papers 17297, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    4. David S. Lee & Justin McCrary, 2009. "The Deterrence Effect of Prison: Dynamic Theory and Evidence," Working Papers 1168, Princeton University, Department of Economics, Center for Economic Policy Studies..
    5. David S. Lee & Justin McCrary, 2009. "The Deterrence Effect of Prison: Dynamic Theory and Evidence," Working Papers 1171, Princeton University, Department of Economics, Industrial Relations Section..
    6. Angela K. Dills & Jeffrey A. Miron & Garrett Summers, 2010. "What Do Economists Know about Crime?," NBER Chapters,in: The Economics of Crime: Lessons for and from Latin America, pages 269-302 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    7. Darren Grant, 2010. "The Simple Economics of Thresholds: Evidence from the Western States 100," Working Papers 1004, Sam Houston State University, Department of Economics and International Business.
    8. McCrary, Justin & Lee, David S., 2009. "The Deterrence Effect of Prison: Dynamic Theory and Evidence," Berkeley Olin Program in Law & Economics, Working Paper Series qt2gh1r30h, Berkeley Olin Program in Law & Economics.
    9. Ross, Amanda, 2012. "Crime, police, and truth-in-sentencing: The impact of state sentencing policy on local communities," Regional Science and Urban Economics, Elsevier, vol. 42(1-2), pages 144-152.
    10. Tyrefors Hinnerich, Björn & Palme, Mårten & Priks, Mikael, 2017. "Age-Dependent Court Sentences and Crime Bunching: Empirical Evidence from Swedish Administrative Data," Working Paper Series 1163, Research Institute of Industrial Economics.
    11. Tabarrok Alexander & Helland Eric, 2009. "Measuring Criminal Spillovers: Evidence from Three Strikes," Review of Law & Economics, De Gruyter, vol. 5(1), pages 251-268, May.
    12. repec:kap:atlecj:v:45:y:2017:i:2:d:10.1007_s11293-017-9544-8 is not listed on IDEAS
    13. repec:pri:cepsud:189lee is not listed on IDEAS
    14. Gabriel Costeira Machado & Cristiano Aguiar De Oliveira, 2018. "The Deterrent Effects Of Brazillian Child Labor Law," Anais do XLIV Encontro Nacional de Economia [Proceedings of the 44th Brazilian Economics Meeting] 237, ANPEC - Associação Nacional dos Centros de Pós-Graduação em Economia [Brazilian Association of Graduate Programs in Economics].

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • J22 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demand and Supply of Labor - - - Time Allocation and Labor Supply
    • J58 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Labor-Management Relations, Trade Unions, and Collective Bargaining - - - Public Policy
    • K14 - Law and Economics - - Basic Areas of Law - - - Criminal Law

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