Law and Econ: The Wesley Snipes Case

This one has really been bothering me.  I know economics is a discipline you love to hate, LB, but this case illustrates its value in the area of law.  Wesley Snipes was sentenced to three years in prison for three nonviolent misdemeanors.  Why?  If you listen to the prosecutors and the judge who agreed with them, it is to make an example of Mr. Snipes.  Once again, why?

I could cite any number of widely accepted economic theories and econometric models that clearly demonstrate that the deterrence coefficient in cases like this is almost zero.  That means that science tells us that the general public will not change their behaviors based on this case.  Even if you aggregate many such cases, the effect remains miniscule.  I would love to conduct two different surveys during the next tax season asking people what they are doing differently as a result of this case.  One would be a random sample of the general public and the other would target celebrities.  I am confident the results would support what I have already asserted.   

What econometric models do tell us is that swift financial and other creative penalties do make a difference in behavior. Not only that, but they allow people to remain productive in society, so we all benefit.  The coefficients for financial penalties when people feel there is even a relatively small chance of being caught are rather high.  Forget the unfairness of sending Mr. Snipes to prison and allowing Willie Nelson to smoke and sing his way out of debt.  Forget about the possible racial questions.  The fact is that in most cases, sending people to prison for nonviolent misdemeanors makes absolutely no economic since. 

We will now lose the production Mr. Snipes would have contributed to GDP for the next three years.   Considering the income he generates, that is not insignificant.  The bigger problem is the millions of other young men that we are sending to prison for crimes that used to garner a financial slap on the wrist.  Almost all of these men do not have the advantages of Mr. Snipes.  In fact, we can expect that once they have served one term in prison, most of them will continue to return to prison for a good portion of their productive lives.  We keep building more and more prisons (that we have to support) and we continue to lose trillions in production potential. 

While I do not have time over the next year to explore this, I do plan to spend most of the rest of my adult life trying to pound some economic since into the heads of lawmakers.  LB, I believe this issue will turn on empirical economics, despite the myriad of sociological reasons that support the same conclusions.  Perhaps such a study would be a good topic for an econ major in your seminar next year.    

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2 Responses to Law and Econ: The Wesley Snipes Case

  1. laurabethnielsen says:

    I am with you, FlavorAid (grape). Many non-violent crimes should not land you in prison.

  2. jeffaregularworkinglawyer says:

    As a society, we have a great belief in punishment, and especially imprisonment, as a deterrent, for both violent and non-violent crimes. Without any hard data in front of me, I’m skeptical across the board. Just like people overestimate their chances of winning the lottery, they underestimate their chances of being caught or punished. As Hillary Clinton has been reminding us lately, Americans are optimistic, not bitter!

    I do know that federal prosecutors have had it about up to here (gesturing three inches over the top of his still-hairy scalp) with the “income tax is illegal, so you don’t have to pay it” crowd that Mr. Snipes apparently fell into. It’s like an endless game of whack-a-mole, and after a while, they must be tempted to whack a little bit harder.

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