NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

Using Sentence Enhancements to Distinguish between Deterrence and Incapacitation

Daniel Kessler, Steven D. Levitt

NBER Working Paper No. 6484
Issued in March 1998
NBER Program(s):   LE   PE

It is typically difficult to differentiate empirically between deterrence and incapacitation since both are a function of expected punishment. In this paper we demonstrate that the introduction of sentence enhancements (i.e. increased punishments that are added on to prison sentences that would have been served anyway) provides a direct means of measuring deterrence. Because the criminal would have been sentenced to prison anyway, there is no additional incapacitation effect from the sentence enhancement in the short-run. Therefore, any immediate decrease in crime must be due to deterrence. We test the model using California's Proposition 8 which imposed sentence enhancements for a selected group of crimes. In the year following its passage, crimes covered by Proposition 8 fell by more than 10 percent relative to similar crimes not affected by the law, suggesting a large deterrent effect. Three years after the law comes into effect, eligible crimes have fallen roughly 20-40 percent compared to non-eligible crimes. This large deterrent effect suggests that sentence enhancements, and may be more cost-effective than is generally thought.

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Published: Journal of Law and Economics, Vol. 42, no. 1, part 2 (April 1999):343-363.

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