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98 Iowa L. Rev. 905 (2012-2013)
The Imprisoner's Dilemma: A Cost-Benefit Approach to Incarceration

handle is hein.journals/ilr98 and id is 947 raw text is: The Imprisoner's Dilemma:
A Cost-Benefit Approach to Incarceration
David S. Abrams*
ABSTRACT: Depriving an individual of life or liberty is one of the most
intrusive powers that governments wield. Decisions about imprisonment
capture the public imagination. The stories are told daily in newspapers
and on television, dramatized in literature and on film, and debated by
scholars. The United States has created an ever-increasing amount of
material for discussion as the state incarceration rate quadrupled between
i98o and 2000. While the decision to incarcerate an individual is given
focused attention by a judge, prosecutor, and (occasionally) a jury, the
overall incarceration rate is not.
In this Article, I apply a cost-benefit approach to incarceration with the
goal of informing public policy. An excessive rate of incarceration not only
deprives individuals of freedom, but also costs the taxpayers large amounts
of money. Too little imprisonment harms society in a different way-through
costs to victims and even non-victims who must increase precautions to
avoid crime. Striking the right balance of costs and benefits is what good
law and public policy strive for.
Changes to the inmate population may be made in several different ways.
One insight that I stress in this Article is that the precise form of a proposed
incarceration policy change is crucial to properly evaluating the impact of
the change. Therefore, I analyze several potential policy changes and their
implications for sentencing and imprisonment. The calculations are
informed by recent empirical work on the various ways in which
* Assistant Professor of Law, Business, and Public Policy, University of Pennsylvania. I
am grateful for excellent comments and suggestions from Matt Adler, Anita Allen, Jennifer
Arlen, Mitch Berman, Stephanos Bibas, Cary Coglianese, Ted Eisenberg, Claire Finkelstein,
Josh Fischman, Jean Galbraith, Nuno Garoupa, Dan Ho, Bert Huang, Doug Husack, Leo Katz,
Judd Kessler, Jonathan Klick, Michael Knoll, Susan Kolpon, Seth Kreimer, David Law, John
MacDonald, Stephen Morse, Gideon Parchomovsky, JJ. Prescott, Paul Robinson, Dan
Rubinfeld, David Rudovsky, Sonja Starr, Jeremy Tobacman, Michael Wachter, Polk Wagner,
Tess Wilkinson-Ryan and Christopher Yoo. Neel Rane and Kathy Qian provided outstanding
research assistance.


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