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In the law enforcement literature there is a presumption—supported by some experimental and econometric evidence—that criminals are more responsive to increases in the certainty than the severity of punishment. Under a general set of assumptions, this implies that criminals are risk seeking. We show that this implication is no longer valid when forfeiture of illegal gains and the possibility of unsuccessful attempts are considered. Therefore, when drawing inferences concerning offenders’ attitudes toward risk based on their responses to various punishment schemes, special attention must be paid to whether and to what extent offenders’ illegal gains can be forfeited and whether increases in the probability of punishment affect the probability of attempts being successful. We discuss policy implications related to our observations.


crime, deterrence, risk preferences, punishment

Publication Title

Journal of Legal Studies

Publication Citation

43 J. Legal Stud. 137 (2014).