The Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s research is supplemented by work from a group of academics who make up our Board of Scholars. One Center Scholar, Dr. Sarah Estelle, an associate professor of economics at Hope College, just published new findings on the effects of harsher sentences on future crime. The results, appearing in the Journal of Public Economics, indicate that a harsh approach to criminal sentencing does not always reduce recidivism rates.
Estelle, along with her co-author David Phillips, gathered data on two common nonviolent felonies: shoplifting and drunk driving. They studied the sentences that judges imposed on adults convicted of these crimes in Michigan, who rely on sentencing guidelines in an attempt to promote consistency. Sentencing policy is difficult to get right because it must rely mainly on two variables: the nature of the offense and the offender’s criminal history. The goal is to hand down a sentence that both appropriately punishes the offender for the crime and deters him from committing another. But future criminal behavior actually depends on a variety of factors, including age, sex, geography and the nature of the offender’s first criminal charge. Incarceration also has an impact.
For the groups Estelle and Phillips studied, harsher sentences generated by the guidelines were effective at deterring future crime among shop lifters, but not drunk drivers. They caution that, while harsh punishments do seem to work for some demographics (particularly young males in the metro Detroit region), there are other groups for whom harsher sentences will make no difference other than to impose additional costs on the state’s criminal justice resources.
“Maximizing the public benefits of sentencing reform,” they conclude, “requires carefully identifying which offenses and offenders to target for reduced versus increased sentencing guidelines.” The complete paper is available here.
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