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Welfare Economics and Criminal Justice Policy

NCJ Number
J L Sedgwick
Date Published
365 pages
This study concludes that law enforcement planners should use a welfare economic approach to the understanding of criminology rather than a sociological approach.
Society's success in dealing with crime is heavily influenced by the policy paradigm or conceptual framework used to analyze the problem and formulate policy proposals. The economist's utility maximization theory of criminal behavior differs significantly from the dominant sociological understanding of crime. Differential association theory points the decisionmaker toward policy solutions which would be difficult for the government to pursue in a liberal regime. In addition, most current empirical studies show that the utility maximization model of criminal behavior correctly predicts the impact on crime rates of changes in the certainty and severity of punishment. Law enforcement planners currently use both vague and inappropriate goals. This problem could be eliminated through use of systems analysis grounded on welfare economic principles. Such an approach would produce more comprehensive estimates of crime costs, including both psychic and economic costs. The study's final section considers limits of the welfare economic approach. The main problems are the approach's concept of punishment and the reliance on public preferences in setting law enforcement goals. Since the welfare economic approach to crime is incapable of distinguishing good policy from public preferences, the policymaker's moral and intellectual qualities are crucially important to the use of the approach. Figures, tables, footnotes, appendixes presenting excerpts of instruments for collecting data based on the welfare economics approach, and a bibliography listing 158 references are included.


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