Does the U.S. Overpunish Violent Crime? Optimal Restitution on the Back of the Envelope
By Bryan Caplan
I recently read a paper by Loyola prof (and GMU Ph.D.) Dan D’Amico. The first part of the paper explained that among crime researchers, there is a strong consensus that the U.S. government is too punitive – even though the U.S. public believes the opposite.
My presumption, as usual, is that experts are right and laymen are wrong. But since most of these crime experts come from sociology and related far-left fields, maybe this consensus just reflects experts’ ideological bias. For victimless crimes, of course, I consider any punishment at all to be excessive. But what about violent crime? In a well-designed restitution-based system, how much would a criminal have to pay to, say, break your arm, and how long would it take him to repay his debt?
Let’s start with willingness to pay. If you have a comfortable First World existence, I doubt you’d settle for less than $10,000 to be the victim of a violent arm-breaking. It’s not just the pain; it’s the fear. If you add on medical expenses, that’s probably another $5000. If you count the willingness to pay of the people who care deeply about your well-being – most obviously your parents – that’s probably at least another $5000.
This all adds up to $20,000. But that is only reasonable restitution if the criminal is sure to be caught. In the real world, the chance of catching an arm breaker is, say, more like 20%. The roughly optimal restitution then comes out to $20,000/.2=$100,000.
How many years of indentured servitude in a prison factory would be required to repay this debt? While violent criminals are generally healthy, young men, they’re usually hard to monitor and manage and have few marketable skills. Even if you could get their gross marginal productivity up to $20,000 a year, and hold room and board at the prison factory down to $15,000 a year, it would still take 20 years to work off the debt. And that’s ignoring interest! At a 5% interest rate, $5000 per year just covers the interest on $100,000 of principal, so even an immortal arm breaker would never work off his debt.
Admittedly, there are some countervailing factors. Victims might settle for less restitution than they’re entitled to in order to improve convicts’ work incentives. Victims might prefer ankle bracelets and work release programs to get their money faster. Prisons might offer criminals job training and split the rate of return. And private prisons would certainly have an a strong incentive to curtail prisoner-on-prisoner violence, so they wouldn’t be as awful as the prisons we’ve got.
Still, optimal restitution for even fairly minor assaults could easily justify a decade-plus of involuntary servitude. And for violent crimes that do permanent physical and psychological damage, let alone murder, a criminal could easily burn up a lifetime’s worth of human capital with a single offense. Just imagine how quickly a kidnapper could rack up a million-dollar tab.
I’m the first to admit that these are only tentative calculations. But as punitive as the U.S. is compared to other nations, it’s simplistic to simply declare that the status quo is “too harsh.” That’s obviously true for victimless crimes. For violent crime, however, the central flaw of the status quo might well be excessive leniency.