Wrongful Convictions, Deterrence, and Stigma Dilution


There is no consensus in the economics of law enforcement literature regarding the likely effects of wrongful convictions on deterrence. While many assert that wrongful convictions and wrongful acquittals are likely to cause similar reductions in deterrence, others, most notably Lando (2006), have claimed that certain types of wrongful convictions are unlikely to affect deterrence. However, the stigmatizing effects of convictions are not taken into account in the formulation of either view. Frequent wrongful convictions naturally make criminal records less meaningful, because they reduce the proportion of truly guilty individuals among the convicted population. This stigma dilution effect, along with similar effects regarding the probability of stigmatization, are formalized via a model wherein criminal records act as noisy signals of offenders' characteristics. The analysis reveals that when criminal records cause stigmatization, wrongful convictions reduce deterrence, even if they are caused by adjudication mistakes which were previously shown to have no effect on deterrence. This suggests that pro-defendant biases in various criminal procedures can potentially be explained through interactions between stigmatization and wrongful convictions.