For Lower-Income Criminals, Prison Deters Better than Reputation Loss

Western notes that “Research also shows that people are deterred by the stigma of a criminal record. When severe punishment becomes commonplace, stigma, and its deterrent effect, are diluted.” However, Western doesn’t seem to understand how these penalties work. The problem is that reputational penalties are much less important for those who have less to lose — those on the lowest rung of the ladder can’t be punished much this way. Unfortunately, that is why locking up people in prison might be a very important way of deterring those who have nothing else to lose.

For the same crime, white collar, higher-income criminals face much, much larger reputational penalties from the legal system than lower-income criminals. Of course, they also face larger fines and restitution, but the reputational penalties constitute the largest part of the total penalty. I provided the details in my first posting. There are two other findings to add: putting people in prison produces a bigger reputational penalty than arrest, and the longer the prison term, the larger the reputational penalty. Evidence on the reputational impact from arrest is hard to find, but the only reputational effects that I know of from arrest occur, for the same reasons, for high income criminals.

This creates an obvious problem for Western’s hope of relying on punishment short of imprisonment to deter poor criminals. While reputational penalties represent most of the penalty for higher-income individuals, for non-drug offenses, prison represents most of the penalty for the lowest-income criminals.

Let me provide some perspective to Western raising the issue of certainty versus severity. Certainty involves the probabilities of arrest and conviction. My first post cited my survey of the evidence that pointed to a similar pattern: “Changes in arrest rates account for up to about 18 percent of the variation in murder rates. Conviction rates explain up to another 12 percent. Prison sentences another 10 percent and the death penalty another 10 percent (see Lott, 2007, Chapter 4).”

Both certainty and severity matter, but relying on changing levels of certainty wouldn’t make much difference if there wasn’t a penalty to back it up, and the reverse is also true.[1] And the cost-benefit discussion that I also provided in an earlier post was based on that same percentage for the impact of prison sentences.

No one has to rely on unjustified retribution to explain a preference for prison over a jobs program. The very thing about prison that upsets Loury and Western — the fact that it is punitive — is the precise reason why we want to have prison sentences: to deter crime, we need punishment. I think that it is that very intuitive point that would be behind people’s rejection of proposals that replaced prison with a jobs program. As I understand Western’s Brookings Institution article, the jobs program works in the shadow of the threat of prison. So it is impossible to evaluate the jobs program as a substitute for prison.

There is also one very serious cost of the jobs program that Western’s cost-benefit analysis for Brookings ignores. If the jobs program takes some of the long-term penalty sting out of committing a crime, a permanent program where people thinking of committing the first time knew about it, the jobs program could increase crime. Because of this it is likely that Western’s proposal has overestimated the benefits he claims exist.

Wilson’s arguments aren’t based on “disproportionate and prejudiced” anger, but on logical arguments about deterrence. Interestingly, Western keeps pointing to evidence such as the so-called unexplained arrest-prison gap, or now reputational penalties, that shows that high income and white criminals are the ones that get punished more severely by the legal system.


[1] You just can’t compare a one percent change in arrests or conviction rates and a one-month increase in prison, because the two are in different units. How much these variables explain of the change in crime rates depends on how much they change and the impact that they have. Prison sentence lengths tend only to change relatively gradually, especially when compared to arrest rates. I could also get into confusions over marginal versus average deterrence, but those discussions are beyond the scope of the current debate.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, Brown University’s Glenn Loury, author of Race, Incarceration, and American Values, points out that the United States imprisons more of its population than any country on the planet. America’s incaceration policies, Loury observes, fall disproportionately on black men. Loury is disturbed that we seem rarely to consider whether these policies make sense. He argues that they do not make sense, but that “the racially disparate incidence of punishment in the United States is a morally troubling residual effect of the nation’s history of enslavement, disenfranchisement, segregation, and discrimination.” Loury contends that the American ethos of individual responsibility has largely blinded us to the fact that “society at large is implicated in [the criminal’s] choices because we have acquiesced in structural arrangements which work to our benefit and his detriment.” Loury concludes: “What the brutal facts about punishment in today’s America show is that [the] American project of civic inclusion remains incomplete.”

Response Essays

  • In his reply to this month’s lead essay, the University of Maryland’s John R. Lott, Jr. criticizes Loury for a selective presentation of facts about race and the American criminal justice system. Lott points out that blacks are the primary victims of crimes committed by other blacks. “If we punish black criminals a lot, isn’t it possible that the reason we are doing it is because we care about the black victims?” he asks. Lott argues that while the United States does have the world’s highest rates of incarceration, the evidence shows that the policies behind this fact have been effective in deterring crime. Additionally, Lott maintains that there is little evidence that other criminal penalties disproportionately burden blacks or the poor, and that well-intended policies meant to bring more blacks into law enforcement have actually increased crime rates in minority areas by lowering the average quality of new police recruits of all backgrounds.

  • James Q. Wilson sympathizes with Glenn Loury’s “impassioned cry from the heart,” yet ultimately finds that it comes up short in substance. A more programmatic approach is in order, he argues. Although imprisonment has costs, it also has benefits, including decreased risk from several types of crimes. Yet programs that attempt to reduce criminality and recidivism must start outside the penal system and address broken families, neighborhoods, and educational systems.

  • Harvard sociologist Bruce Western, author of Punishment and Inequality in America argues that although the growth of mass imprisonment in recent years has caused a modest reduction in crime, this reduction may not have been worth the costs. Not only did we spend billions on new prisons, we interrupted millions of lives and families. We lost the economic output of prisoners and alienated them from society at large. We further ran the risk of recidivism, because past imprisonment is strongly associated with future crime. Western characterizes the public safety provided by mass imprisonment as “short-term, expensive, and vulnerable to reversal.” Worse, there are other ways to reduce crime that do not rely on imprisonment. Today’s state legislators and governors are no longer as invested in the prison system and do not see more prisons as the solution to social ills, and this, to him, is a welcome development.