Michael Tonry is a professor at University of Minnesota Law School. He is among the nation’s academic elite when it comes to thinking about crime and punishment. He has posted The Fog Around Cost-Benefit Studies of Crime and Punishment May Finally Be Clearing: Prisoners and Their Kids Suffer Too (Criminology & Public Policy (Forthcoming)) on SSRN.
Here is the abstract:
Cost-benefit and cost-effectiveness studies of crime control and punishment have proliferated since the late-1980s. Especially in relation to crime prevention programs and punishment policies they have been hugely, and regrettably, influential. “Regrettable” because many have relied on exaggerated estimates of “intangible costs” of victimization so unrealistically high that that almost any sanctioning policy no matter how severe could be shown to be effective. Likewise, almost any prevention program estimated to have prevented rapes or robberies could be shown to generate benefits in excess of costs. Estimates for rape and homicide were greatly exaggerated because they were initially based on jury damage awards in civil law suits, the right hand tale of any crime distribution because a successful lawsuit depends on the presence of an egregious crime and one or both of a highly sympathetic victim and a wealthy or well-insured defendant. The latter are not common characteristics of rape and homicide defendants. More recent studies have relied on statistical life valuations ranging from $0.7 to 26.4 million, a range so wide that any number chosen is inherently arbitrary. Recent work, however, has shown that studies relying on estimates of intangible victim costs are fundamentally flawed for the reasons described and others.