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Deterrence and the Optimal Use of Prison, Parole, and Probation


  • A. Mitchell Polinsky
  • Paul N. Riskind


In this article we derive the mix of criminal sanctions—choosing among prison, parole, and probation—that achieves any target level of deterrence at least cost. We assume that prison has higher disutility and higher cost per unit time than parole and probation and that potential offenders discount the future disutility of sanctions at a higher rate than the state discounts the future costs of sanctions. Our primary insight is that there is a “front-loading advantage” of imprisonment due to these differential discount rates. This advantage implies that (a) whenever a sentence includes both a prison term and a parole term, the prison term should be imposed first; and (b) it may be optimal to employ a prison term even if prison has higher cost per unit of disutility than parole and probation and even if prison is not needed to achieve the target level of deterrence.

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  • A. Mitchell Polinsky & Paul N. Riskind, 2017. "Deterrence and the Optimal Use of Prison, Parole, and Probation," NBER Working Papers 23436, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:23436
    Note: LE PE

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. 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.
    2. Polinsky, A Mitchell & Shavell, Steven, 1999. "On the Disutility and Discounting of Imprisonment and the Theory of Deterrence," The Journal of Legal Studies, University of Chicago Press, vol. 28(1), pages 1-16, January.
    3. Moore Mark A. & Vining Aidan R. & Boardman Anthony E., 2013. "More appropriate discounting: the rate of social time preference and the value of the social discount rate," Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis, De Gruyter, vol. 4(1), pages 1-16, March.
    4. David F. Burgess & Richard O. Zerbe, 2013. "Appropriate discounting for benefit–cost analysis," Chapters, in: Scott O. Farrow & Richard Zerbe, Jr. (ed.), Principles and Standards for Benefit–Cost Analysis, chapter 7, pages 247-263, Edward Elgar Publishing.
    5. Aaron Chalfin & Justin McCrary, 2017. "Criminal Deterrence: A Review of the Literature," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 55(1), pages 5-48, March.
    6. Mastrobuoni, Giovanni & Rivers, David A., 2016. "Criminal Discount Factors and Deterrence," IZA Discussion Papers 9769, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
    7. Dan Bernhardt & Steeve Mongrain & Joanne Roberts, 2012. "Rehabilitated or Not: An Informational Theory of Parole Decisions," Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization, Oxford University Press, vol. 28(2), pages 186-210.
    8. Burgess, David F. & Zerbe, Richard O., 2011. "Appropriate Discounting for Benefit-Cost Analysis," Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis, Cambridge University Press, vol. 2(2), pages 1-20, April.
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    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • H23 - Public Economics - - Taxation, Subsidies, and Revenue - - - Externalities; Redistributive Effects; Environmental Taxes and Subsidies
    • K14 - Law and Economics - - Basic Areas of Law - - - Criminal Law
    • K42 - Law and Economics - - Legal Procedure, the Legal System, and Illegal Behavior - - - Illegal Behavior and the Enforcement of Law

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