Panel Paper: Smart Sentencing Guidelines: The Effect of Marginal Policy Changes on Recidivism

Saturday, November 4, 2017
Stetson D (Hyatt Regency Chicago)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Sarah Estelle, Hope College and David C Phillips, University of Notre Dame

Public appeals regarding criminal justice have shifted somewhat from “tough on crime” to “smart justice” that is more lenient when tradeoffs merit it. Among other considerations, smart sentencing policy depends on how sentence severity affects recidivism. Using administrative data on two common felonies committed by adults in Michigan, we measure the effect of sentences on offenders’ future criminal activity. Discontinuities in the legislative guidelines that constrain sentences chosen by Michigan judges provide exogenous variation in sentence severity and allow us to measure the effect of more severe sentences on recidivism. While the existing literature investigates the causal effect of sentences on recidivism, our regression discontinuity design measures a local average treatment effect on a margin that policymakers can readily manipulate. Our results indicate that harsher sentences generated by sentencing guidelines reduce recidivism by felony shoplifters while repeat drunk driving offenders’ recidivism is not significantly affected. That we find heterogeneous effects of incarceration suggests that “smart justice” should account for offense-specific tradeoffs between public safety and the public budget.