Author names are ordered arbitrarily to reflect equal contribution. The authors thank Carlisle Moody and David Card for making data available and John M. Roberts, Jr. for helpful comments. Funding was provided by grants from the National Institute of Justice, National Science Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation. Points of view in the document are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of either agency. Direct correspondence to Raymond V. Liedka, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, 518 Varner Hall, Oakland University, Rochester MI 48309 (email@example.com).
THE CRIME-CONTROL EFFECT OF INCARCERATION: DOES SCALE MATTER?*
Article first published online: 16 JUN 2006
Criminology & Public Policy
Volume 5, Issue 2, pages 245–276, May 2006
How to Cite
LIEDKA, R. V., PIEHL, A. M. and USEEM, B. (2006), THE CRIME-CONTROL EFFECT OF INCARCERATION: DOES SCALE MATTER?. Criminology & Public Policy, 5: 245–276. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-9133.2006.00376.x
- Issue published online: 16 JUN 2006
- Article first published online: 16 JUN 2006
- Crime Rates;
- Prison Population;
- Mass Incarceration;
- Prison Buildup
Several prominent empirical studies estimate models of a constant proportional effect of prison on crime, finding that effect is substantial and negative. A separate literature argues against the crime-reducing effect of prison but mainly on theoretical grounds. This second literature suggests that the elasticity of the prison/crime relationship is not constant. We provide a model that nests these two literatures. Using data from the United States over 30 years, we find strong evidence that the negative relationship between prison and crime becomes less strongly negative as the scale of imprisonment increases. This revisionist model indicates that (1) at low levels of incarceration, a constant elasticity model underestimates the negative relationship between incarceration and crime, and (2) at higher levels of incarceration, the constant elasticity model overstates the negative effect.
These results go beyond the claim of declining marginal returns, instead finding accelerating declining marginal returns. As the prison population continues to increase, albeit at a slower rate, after three decades of phenomenal growth, these findings provide an important caution that for many jurisdictions, the point of accelerating declining marginal returns may have set in. Any policy discussion of the appropriate scale of punishment should be concerned with the empirical impact of this expensive and intrusive government intervention.