Why Prison?: An Economic Critique

Berkeley Journal of Criminal Law, 2017, Forthcoming

61 Pages Posted: 7 Mar 2017 Last revised: 3 Sep 2020

See all articles by Peter Salib

Peter Salib

University of Houston Law Center

Date Written: March 6, 2017


This Article argues that we should not imprison people who commit crimes. This is true despite the fact that essentially all legal scholars, attorneys, judges, and laypeople see prison as the sine qua non of a criminal justice system. Without prison, most would argue, we could not punish past crimes, deter future crimes, or keep dangerous criminals safely separate from the rest of society. Scholars of law and economics have generally held the same view, treating prison as an indispensable tool for minimizing social harm. But the prevailing view is wrong. Employing the tools of economic analysis, this Article demonstrates that prison imposes enormous but well-hidden societal losses. It is therefore a deeply inefficient device for serving the utilitarian aims of the criminal law system — namely, optimally deterring bad social actors while minimizing total social costs. The Article goes on to engage in a thought experiment, asking whether an alternative system of criminal punishment could serve those goals more efficiently. It concludes that there exist economically superior alternatives to prison available right now. The alternatives are practicable. They plausibly comport with our current legal rules and more general moral principles. They could theoretically be implemented tomorrow, and, if we wished, we could bid farewell forever to our sprawling, socially-suboptimal system of imprisonment.

Keywords: Criminal Law, Law and Economics, Economic Analysis of the Law, Punishment, Crime

Suggested Citation

Salib, Peter, Why Prison?: An Economic Critique (March 6, 2017). Berkeley Journal of Criminal Law, 2017, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2928219 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2928219

Peter Salib (Contact Author)

University of Houston Law Center ( email )

4104 Martin Luther King Blvd.
Houston, TX 77204
United States

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