Marginal Deterrence at Work
We test the rational economic model of marginal deterrence of law enforcement --- i.e., the need for graduating the penalty to the severity of the crime. We combine individual-level data on sentence length for a representative sample of US inmates with proxies for maximum punishment and monitoring costs across US states over 50 years. Consistent with the theory of marginal deterrence, we show that an increase in maximum penalty or a decrease in monitoring cost are associated with longer sentences. We also provide evidence that steeper sanctions are associated with less severe crimes, consistent with marginal deterrence being effective. Overall, these findings favor the marginal deterrence framework over competing theories of justice.
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