Estimating the Deterrent Effect of Incarceration using Sentencing Enhancements

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Increasing criminal sanctions may reduce crime through two primary mechanisms: deterrence and incapacitation. Disentangling their effects is crucial, since each mechanism has different implications for optimal policy setting. I use the introduction of state add-on gun laws, which enhance sentences for defendants possessing a firearm during the commission of a felony, to isolate the deterrent effect of incarceration. Defendants subject to add-ons would be incarcerated in the absence of the law change, so any short-term impact on crime can be attributed solely to deterrence. Using cross-state variation in the timing of law passage dates, I find that the average add-on gun law results in a roughly 5 percent decline in gun robberies within the first three years. This result is robust to a number of specification tests and does not appear to be associated with large spillovers to other types of crime.


Criminal law, punishment, mandatory sentencing, incarceration, sentence length, enhancement, armed robbery, use of a gun in the commission of a crime, deterrence, empirical research, forecasting and simulation, ascertaining disparities in criminal behavior, law and economics of crime, general deterrence, add-ons, add-on gun laws, mandatory minimum

Publication Title

American Economic Journal: Applied Economics

Publication Citation

4(4) American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 32-56 (2012).