Alternative Sentencing

  • Katri K. Sieberg
Part of the Studies in Economic Theory book series (ECON.THEORY, volume 12)


The existence of the prison system is such a familiar part of society, that its use as a primary form of punishment is largely taken for granted. Indeed, recent efforts to “get tough on crime” have lead to a massive expansion of the corrections system. Mandatory sentencing policies have been imposed as a means of avoiding leniency or potential inconsistencies in judges’ rulings. These policies dictate sentence lengths for all crimes, from that of drug possession to homicide. This no-nonsense approach, coupled with an increase in severity is meant to send the message to criminals that crime does not pay!


Prison Sentence Drug Dealer Violent Offender Prison System Prison Term 
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  1. 3.
    U.S Dept of Justice, Uniform Crime Report, 2000). In theory, an increase in prison population should decrease crime, however, critics, such as John Dilulio Jr. have attributed the recent decrease in crime to factors other than the corrections system. There is a smaller population in the age cohort that generally commits the majority of crimes; the price of illegal drugs has decreased; and many of the wars over drug territory have been resolved. These are just some of the factors perceived as responsible for the decrease in crime.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    The proposal to use alternative sentences for nonviolent crimes is not new. The National Council on Crime and Delinquency recommended expanded use of these options in order to reserve prison space for violent offenders, repeat offenders, and felons who had substantially violated the public trust. (Wolf and Weissman, 1996, 193).Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    The model does not take into account allocation between legal and illegal activity, labor costs, risk of injury, or other factors. For examples of more realistic extensions of the model, (see Becker, 1974, Heineke, 1978, and Stigler, 1988.)Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    See, for example, Becker, 1968, Mendes and McDonald, 1999.Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    Of course, we would prefer to have as little crime as possible, but crime fighting and punishment are costly. Joan Petersilia notes that current prison and enforcement expenditures in California are so high that they have significantly reduced the number of funds available for education. (Petersilia, 1999) In order to achieve a balance between crime fighting and other social expenditures, a society must select a level of crime that is “acceptable.”Google Scholar
  6. 10.
    This equation assumes that the criminal is risk neutral. Becker (1968), among others, has argued that criminals are risk preferring. Others (Mendes and McDonald, 2000 ) have claimed that this assumption is unwarranted. For simplicity, I will assume risk neutrality.Google Scholar
  7. 12.
    Wolf and Weissman (1996, 202) criticize the system by stating that “In light of the obvious fiscal benefits, the barriers to enacting [alternative sentencing] reforms are in essence political: proposing expanded alternative options implies leniency in a system that focuses on punishment and views imprisonment as the primary means of achieving social control.”Google Scholar
  8. 20.
    Byrne. and Brewster, 1993, 6.Google Scholar
  9. 27.
    Byrne and Brewster, 1993, 4, and Wolf and Weissman, 1996, 201.Google Scholar
  10. 29.
    In 1999, the United States housed the most inmates, 1.85m, followed by China, 1.4m, and Russia, 1.05m. (Walmsley, 2000).Google Scholar
  11. 39.
    Steffensmeier, and Harer, 1993, 9.Google Scholar
  12. 34.
    In 1996, 60.8% (50,754 out of a total population of 83,515) of the federal prison population were drug dealers. In contrast, drug dealers constituted only 16.3% of the federal prison population in 1970. (Federal Bureau of Prisons, “Quick Facts”, May, 1997.)Google Scholar
  13. 51.
    Greenwood, Rydell, Abrahamse, Caulkins, Chiesa, Model, and Klein,. 1997.Google Scholar
  14. 52.
    Supreme Court of the United States, 1997.Google Scholar
  15. 53.
    Similarly, the Kansas v. Hendricks ruling makes no claims to be a deterrent, “since persons with a mental abnormality or personality disorder are unlikely to be deterred by the threat of confinement.” Supreme Court of the United States, “Kansas v. Hendricks” No. 95–1649.Google Scholar
  16. 55.
    The Federal Bureau of Investigations classifies violent crimes as including: murder, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Uniform Crime Reporting Program Press Release - 10/13/96.” An extended list includes: kidnapping/hostage, sexual abuse, extortion, and firearms use. Wolf and Weissman, 1996, fn. 11., 203.Google Scholar
  17. 57.
    Marvell and Moody, 2000, p.2.Google Scholar
  18. 62.
    In this analysis, Becker (1968) treats the problem of crime in a manner similar to the treatment of externalities in economics literature. In externalities studies, the problem can be eliminated with a fine, which is roughly equal to the damage that the polluter (or externality producer) inflicts, in order to deter the firm or individual from continuing the activity without a cost to themselves. The remaining problem is that the literature is indefinite as to where this money should go. In some cases, the money is simply set aside, or wasted, in order to avoid the question of who will get the money.Google Scholar
  19. 67.
    These comments sound extreme. This precise effect can be seen today in Russia where the police cannot be relied upon because they are either corrupt or ineffective or both. Many people have come to (or have been coerced into) reliance upon mafia groups for protection from other groups or criminals. In this case, the groups hold the power in the system, and create their own system of order. For more detail, see Saari-Sieberg, 1998.Google Scholar
  20. 68.
    For example, schemes have been developed to calculate the amount necessary to compensate people for disruption or loss due to a governmental project, such as a road. However, Gibbard and Satterthwaite show that no institution is immune from the possibility that people will prefer to misrepresent their true preferences. (Ordeshook, 1986, 95–6.) Thus, even the best mechanisms are subject to the possibility that people will overstate the extent of their loss in order to receive more compensation.Google Scholar
  21. 69.
    Wolf and Weissman find that in the federal sentencing guidelines, “There is no category of offense which, or offender who, is considered ineligible for prison.” p. 194. In fact, despite the NCCD recommendations of decreased use of prisons, several studies have shown an increase in incarcerative sentences. (Wolf and Weissman, 1996, 194.) These prison terms are based on guideline requirements, rather than on judge’s discretion. Judges have complained that due to the need for uniformity, a prison sentence is frequently required when some intermediate sanction would have been preferable. (Wolf and Weissman, 1996, 195.)Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Katri K. Sieberg
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of EconomicsThe College of William & MaryWilliamsburgUSA

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