Should the Punishment Fit the Crime? Discretion and Deterrence in Law Enforcement

84 Pages Posted: 3 Nov 2017 Last revised: 6 Dec 2022

See all articles by Felipe Goncalves

Felipe Goncalves

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - Department of Economics

Steven Mello

Dartmouth College

Date Written: October 27, 2017

Abstract

We study the implications of police discretion for public safety. Relying on variation
across highway patrol officers in their propensity to issue harsh fines, we show that
higher fines reduce future traffic offending. Motorists most likely to face harsh sanctions
are least deterred by fines, inconsistent with an allocation of sanctions that maximizes
public safety, and most likely to reoffend, suggesting an alternative model of officer
behavior. Counterfactual punishment allocations can reduce the aggregate reoffending
rate by as much as seven percent, highlighting efficiency costs associated with current
officer practices, but require that the lowest risk drivers face harsh punishments.

Keywords: Police, Deterrence, Discretion

JEL Classification: K42, D73, J45

Suggested Citation

Goncalves, Felipe and Mello, Steven, Should the Punishment Fit the Crime? Discretion and Deterrence in Law Enforcement (October 27, 2017). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3064406 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3064406

Felipe Goncalves

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - Department of Economics ( email )

8283 Bunche Hall
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1477
United States

Steven Mello (Contact Author)

Dartmouth College ( email )

Department of Economics
Hanover, NH 03755
United States

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