Positive Sanctions versus Imprisonment


This article considers the possibility of simultaneously reducing crime, prison sentences, and the tax burden of financing the criminal justice system by introducing positive sanctions, which are benefits conferred to individuals who refrain from committing crime. Specifically, it proposes a procedure wherein a part of the imprisonment budget is re-directed towards financing positive sanctions. The feasibility of reducing crime, sentences, and taxes through such reallocations depends on how effectively the marginal imprisonment sentence reduces crime, the crime rate, the effectiveness of positive sanctions, and how accurately the government can direct positive sanctions towards individuals who are most responsive to such policies. The article then highlights an advantage of positive sanctions over imprisonment in deterring criminal behavior: positive sanctions operate by transferring or creating wealth, whereas imprisonment operates by destroying wealth. Thus, the conditions under which positive sanctions are optimal are broader than those under which they can be used to jointly reduce crime, sentences, and taxes. The analysis reveals that when the budget for the criminal justice system is exogenously given, it is optimal to use positive sanctions when the imprisonment elasticity of deterrence is small, which is a condition that is consistent with the empirical literature. When the budget for the criminal justice system is endogenously determined, it is optimal to use positive sanctions as long as the marginal cost of public funds is not high.