• Crime Rates;
  • Prison Population;
  • Mass Incarceration;
  • Prison Buildup

Research Summary:

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.

Policy Implications:

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.