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The Deterrence Effect of Prison: Dynamic Theory and Evidence *

aPrinceton University, Princeton, NJ, USA
bNBER, Cambridge, MA
cUC Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, USA

Regression Discontinuity Designs

ISBN: 978-1-78714-390-6, eISBN: 978-1-78714-389-0

Publication date: 13 May 2017


Using administrative, longitudinal data on felony arrests in Florida, we exploit the discontinuous increase in the punitiveness of criminal sanctions at 18 to estimate the deterrence effect of incarceration. Our analysis suggests a 2% decline in the log-odds of offending at 18, with standard errors ruling out declines of 11% or more. We interpret these magnitudes using a stochastic dynamic extension of Becker’s (1968) model of criminal behavior. Calibrating the model to match key empirical moments, we conclude that deterrence elasticities with respect to sentence lengths are no more negative than 0 . 13 for young offenders.




Brett Allen, Diane Alexander, and Yan Lau provided excellent research assistance. We are grateful to Jeff Kling for detailed suggestions on a previous draft. For useful comments, we thank Josh Angrist, David Autor, David Card, Kerwin Charles, Ken Chay, Gordon Dahl, John DiNardo, Michael Greenstone, Vivian Hwa, Christina Lee, Steve Levitt, Robert McMillan, Enrico Moretti, Daniel Parent, Dan Silverman, and seminar participants at UC Berkeley, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Chicago GSB, Columbia, London School of Economics, the NBER Summer Institute, MIT, Northwestern Law, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Rochester, the University of Toronto, University College London, and the University of Wisconsin. Sue Burton of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement was instrumental in obtaining the data we use here. McCrary acknowledges funding from the Center for Local, Urban, and State Policy at the University of Michigan.


Lee, D.S. and McCrary, J. (2017), "The Deterrence Effect of Prison: Dynamic Theory and Evidence * ", Regression Discontinuity Designs (Advances in Econometrics, Vol. 38), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 73-146.



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