Aurelie Ouss

"When Punishment Doesn't Pay: 'Cold Glow' and Decisions to Punish", joint with Alex Peysakhovich

Forthcoming at the Journal of Law and Economics

Abstract: Economic theories of punishment focus on determining the levels that provide maximal social material payoffs. In other words, these theories treat punishment as a public good. Several parameters are key to calculating optimal levels of punishment: total social costs, total social benefits and the probability that offenders are apprehended. However, levels of punishment are often determined by aggregating individual decisions. Research in behavioral economics, psychology and neuroscience shows that individuals appear to treat punishment as a private good ("cold glow"). This means that individual choices may not respond "appropriately" to the social parameters above. We present a simple theory and show in a series of experiments that individually chosen punishment levels can be predictably too high or too low relative to those that maximize social material welfare. Our findings highlight the importance of the psychology of punishment for understanding social outcomes and for designing social institutions.

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"Incentives Structures and Criminal Justice"

Abstract: The conventional assumption in economics of crime is that criminal justice system actors behave like social planners, choosing punishment levels to equate the marginal benefits and costs from society's perspective. This paper presents empirical evidence suggesting that in practice, punishment is based on a much narrower objective function, leading to over-incarceration. We exploit a natural experiment, that shifted which agency paid for juvenile incarceration while keeping overall costs and responsibilities unchanged. Moving the cost of incarceration from state to counties resulted in a discontinuous drop in the number of juveniles being sent to state facilities, but no change in juvenile arrests. When costs and benefits of incarceration are not borne by the same agency, as is often the case in the US, there is excess incarceration: not only is there more demand for prison than when costs are fully internalized; but there are no gains in terms of crime reduction from this extra incarceration.

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"No hatred or malice, fear or affection: Media and sentencing", joint with Arnaud Philippe

Economics of Crime prize at the 6th Transatlantic Workshop on the Economics of Crime

Abstract: This paper investigates the role media plays in sentencing decisions, depending on judicial institutions, and in particular the presence of juries of laypeople versus only experts during trials. Using exact timing of trials and news stories, we look at the effect of television broadcasting of crime and criminal justice stories on sentencing in criminal courts. We find that media content on the day before a trial affects civilian jurors' decisions: sentences are longer after more coverage of crimes, and shorter after stories on judicial errors. However, we find no effect of media coverage on professional judges. Media influences jurors very circumstantially, by making crime more salient, rather than by reflecting changes in levels of crime: the effect is driven by media exposure and not crime per se, and it does not last over time. This paper contributes to understanding how context affects judicial decisions. More broadly, we show how different types of extraneous factors impact lay people versus experts: unlike for many psychological biases (priming, gambler's fallacy, mental depletion...), experience can help mitigate the effects of domain-pertinent but irrelevant external information covered in the media.

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"Jobs, News and Re-offending after Incarceration", joint with Roberto Galbiati and Arnaud Philippe

Abstract: While theoretically important, the relationship between crime and employment is difficult to measure empirically. This paper addresses major identification challenges by exploiting high frequency data of daily online postings on job openings and closings at the county level, merged with individual-level administrative data about all inmates released from French prisons. We find that people who are released when jobs are being created are less likely to recidivate; conversely, people who are released when jobs are being cut are more likely to recidivate. We further show that news on job creation matters, over and beyond actual employment opportunities, suggesting implications for crime-control policies. From a methodological standpoint, this paper demonstrates how using media and online information on jobs can generate higher-frequency variation than administrative employment data, and help to overcome identification challenges to capture effects of variations in job market opportunities, especially when combined with other administrative sources..

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"Prison as a School of Crime: Evidence from Cell-Level Interaction"

Abstract: This paper investigates how interactions in prison influence post-release behavior, establishing at a fine granularity level how prison might act as a "school of crime". Using a unique French administrative dataset of all prisoners incarcerated since January, 2008, which includes cell allocation, we study interactions in own and cellmates' post-release behavior, and in particular in type of crime committed upon release, depending on self and cellmates? motive of incarceration. In French short-term prisons (which we focus on), cellmates typically spend a large portion of a day in their cells, and normal cell sizes are quite small (generally less than 6 inmates at a time), allowing us define extensively who one interacts with during the length of incarceration. By using number of days of overlap as a measure of intensity of interaction, we find evidence of peer effects for skill-intensive offenses, in case of recidivism.

"Collective Sentence Reductions and Recidivism", joint with Eric Maurin

Abstract: This paper exploits the collective pardon granted to individuals incarcerated in French prisons on the 14th of July, 1996 (Bastille Day) to identify the effect of collective sentence reductions on recidivism. The collective pardon generated a significant discontinuity in the relationship between the number of weeks of sentence reduction granted to inmates and their prospective date of release. We show that the same discontinuity exists in the relationship between recidivism five years after release and prospective date of release. Collective sentence reductions increase recidivism and do not represent a cost-effective way to reduce incarceration rates or prisons' overcrowding.