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Transparency About The Costs Of Incarceration Mitigates Sentencing Attitudes

In a study published in Behavioral Sciences & the Law, researchers at Georgia State University sought to understand whether attention to the costs of incarceration decreases support for criminal sentences.

“Many people don’t know that it typically costs upwards of $30,000 to incarcerate someone for just one year in the United States. So, we wondered whether people will change their punishment attitudes when the costs are made explicit,” said Dr. Aharoni, the study’s lead investigator.

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In their experiments, several hundred voting-eligible university students read legal case summaries about a robbery or burglary. Some of them got information about the cost of incarceration, and others did not, while still others were asked to imagine that cost was no object. All participants were then asked to make a sentencing recommendation.

The researchers found that when people were made aware of the true costs of incarcerating the offender, their sentence recommendations were about 25% shorter. But the people who were not exposed to the cost information recommended sentences that were no different from those for whom the costs were not an object.

“This pattern suggests that unless prompted to think about the costs, people neglect them, and they end up punishing more than they would have under more transparent conditions,” said Aharoni.

Their study speaks to a growing debate about mass incarceration in the U.S., which houses over a fifth of the total world’s prison population. Recently, transparency in sentencing has become a priority for leaders on both sides of the political aisle. A few jurisdictions, such as Philadelphia, now require that judges consider the costs of incarceration before forming sentencing judgments.

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“What effect will cost disclosure have on judges?” asks Aharoni. “And how does the usual lack of exposure to such cost information among ordinary citizens and taxpayers affect how they vote on sentencing programs? Much more research is needed in this area.”

Somewhat surprisingly, about 20% of the participants in the Aharoni study were wholly unmoved by the costs of incarceration. Instead, they reported a willingness to endorse virtually any cost to ensure that punishment is served.

When asked about this pattern, Aharoni said, “Americans have long had a penchant for punishment, and for some, that may be their most core value. But when the majority of people in our experiments willingly reconsider their support for punishment following a very simple cost prompt, this suggests to me that most people have a diversity of values that are unusually sensitive to the informational context. If so, then greater transparency about the costs and benefits of different sentencing practices could reduce unwanted disparities between voters expressed judgments and their core values.”

These findings are described in the article entitled Justice at Any Cost? The Impact of Cost/Benefit Salience on Criminal Punishment Judgments, recently published in the journal Behavioral Sciences & the Law.

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