Reexamining the Role of Incarceration and Stigma in Criminal Law

Escresa - Guillermo, Laarni (2011) Reexamining the Role of Incarceration and Stigma in Criminal Law, [Dissertation thesis], Alma Mater Studiorum Università di Bologna. Dottorato di ricerca in Law and economics, 22 Ciclo. DOI 10.6092/unibo/amsdottorato/4241.
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One of the ways by which the legal system has responded to different sets of problems is the blurring of the traditional boundaries of criminal law, both procedural and substantive. This study aims to explore under what conditions does this trend lead to the improvement of society's welfare by focusing on two distinguishing sanctions in criminal law, incarceration and social stigma. In analyzing how incarceration affects the incentive to an individual to violate a legal standard, we considered the crucial role of the time constraint. This aspect has not been fully explored in the literature on law and economics, especially with respect to the analysis of the beneficiality of imposing either a fine or a prison term. We observed that that when individuals are heterogeneous with respect to wealth and wage income, and when the level of activity can be considered a normal good, only the middle wage and middle income groups can be adequately deterred by a fixed fines alone regime. The existing literature only considers the case of the very poor, deemed as judgment proof. However, since imprisonment is a socially costly way to deprive individuals of their time, other alternatives may be sought such as the imposition of discriminatory monetary fine, partial incapacitation and other alternative sanctions. According to traditional legal theory, the reason why criminal law is obeyed is not mainly due to the monetary sanctions but to the stigma arising from the community’s moral condemnation that accompanies conviction or merely suspicion. However, it is not sufficiently clear whether social stigma always accompanies a criminal conviction. We addressed this issue by identifying the circumstances wherein a criminal conviction carries an additional social stigma. Our results show that social stigma is seen to accompany a conviction under the following conditions: first, when the law coincides with the society's social norms; and second, when the prohibited act provides information on an unobservable attribute or trait of an individual -- crucial in establishing or maintaining social relationships beyond mere economic relationships. Thus, even if the social planner does not impose the social sanction directly, the impact of social stigma can still be influenced by the probability of conviction and the level of the monetary fine imposed as well as the varying degree of correlation between the legal standard violated and the social traits or attributes of the individual. In this respect, criminal law serves as an institution that facilitates cognitive efficiency in the process of imposing the social sanction to the extent that the rest of society is boundedly rational and use judgment heuristics. Paradoxically, using criminal law in order to invoke stigma for the violation of a legal standard may also serve to undermine its strength. To sum, the results of our analysis reveal that the scope of criminal law is narrow both for the purposes of deterrence and cognitive efficiency. While there are certain conditions where the enforcement of criminal law may lead to an increase in social welfare, particularly with respect to incarceration and stigma, we have also identified the channels through which they could affect behavior. Since such mechanisms can be replicated in less costly ways, society should first try or seek to employ these legal institutions before turning to criminal law as a last resort.

Tipologia del documento
Tesi di dottorato
Escresa - Guillermo, Laarni
Dottorato di ricerca
Scuola di dottorato
Scienze economiche e statistiche
Settore disciplinare
Settore concorsuale
Parole chiave
law and economics, criminal law, stigma, social norms, behavioral economics
Data di discussione
29 Novembre 2011

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