An Informational Approach to the Mass Imprisonment Problem

Adam M. Gershowitz

William & Mary Law School

August 2, 2007

The United States is plagued by the problem of mass imprisonment, with its prison population having risen by 500 percent in the last three decades. Because the overwhelming majority of criminal cases are resolved through plea bargaining, there is room for prosecutors to reduce mass imprisonment by exercising their wide discretion. At present, prosecutors likely do not give much consideration to the overcrowding of America's jails and prisons when making their plea bargain offers. However, if prosecutors were regularly advised of such overcrowding they might offer marginally lower sentences across the board. For instance, a prosecutor who typically offers a first-time drug offender a twenty-month sentence might instead agree to an eighteen-month plea bargain if she were aware that prisons were overcrowded and incarceration rates were on the rise. A rich body of social psychology literature supports the view that informing prosecutors about mass imprisonment might cause them to offer lower sentences. Legislatures have an incentive to enact such a proposal because a reduction in incarceration would reduce the already huge and escalating costs of criminal corrections. At the same time, because legislatures would simply be instructing that prosecutors be advised of the scale of imprisonment, and not specifically advocating lower sentences, there would be no danger of legislators appearing "soft on crime."

Number of Pages in PDF File: 50

Keywords: imprisonment, mass imprisonment, plea bargaining, social psychology, prosecutorial discretion

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Date posted: August 4, 2007  

Suggested Citation

Gershowitz, Adam M., An Informational Approach to the Mass Imprisonment Problem (August 2, 2007). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1004517 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1004517

Contact Information

Adam M. Gershowitz (Contact Author)
William & Mary Law School ( email )
South Henry Street
P.O. Box 8795
Williamsburg, VA 23187-8795
United States
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