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The Political Cost of Being Soft on Crime and Voters’ Response to Public Policies

Do voters respond to crime control policies?

Crime is perceived as a crucial social issue in most Western countries.  Accordingly, there is a widespread belief that criminal justice policies have a significant impact on voting behavior. Yet, identifying the response of voters to crime control policies shares the same problem with the identification of the effectiveness of any other policy choice (e.g., tax policies). Since politicians endogenously choose their policies to enhance their re-election probability, usually, we do not have a proper counterfactual to judge what would have been voters’ response if different policies were implemented.

The Italian case study

In a recent paper Drago, Galbiati and Sobbrio (Journal of the European Economic Association, forthcoming) [1] we address this issue by exploiting a “natural experiment”. In July 2006, the Italian government implemented an (unanticipated) collective pardon due to a dramatic overcrowding in prisons at that time. As a result, a subset of the prisoners with less than 36 months of residual sentence were released and about the 30% of inmates in Italian prisons are release on August 1st 2006 (Figure 1).



FIGURE 1: Incarceration rates


NOTE: Incarceration rate. The figure illustrates the variation in the incarceration rate (i.e., per 100,000 people) in Italy before and after the collective pardon bill.

The design of the policy was such that released prisoners who would recidivate within a five-year period, would be charged an additional sentence equal to their residual sentence at the time of their release. This created an incentive to refrain from re-offending for pardoned individuals that increases in the length of the residual sentence. Such an incentive, as shown in previous research (Drago, Galbiati and Vertova, 2009, Journal of Political Economy), turns out to be exogenously distributed across released prisoners. Two identical individuals that entered the first time in prison with a sentence of 50 months, at the time of pardon in August 2006 may have two different residual sentences, and thus a different incentive to recidivate, because they entered prison in different periods. Since the date of entry into prison is plausibly exogenous to future criminal behavior, the Italian collective pardon provides a unique opportunity to evaluate voters’ response to the realized effects (recidivism rates) of the pardon. Indeed, the heterogeneity in the residual sentence remains even when aggregating the individual heterogeneity at the municipality where pardoned inmates lived (Figure 2).


FIGURE 2: Geographical distribution of the incentive to recidivate

img 2

Hence, by using the variation in the incentive to recidivate across municipalities we can assess to what extent voters respond to the effects of the crime control policy by holding all the rest equal. In our study we first show that, as expected, municipalities where pardoned individuals had a higher incentive to recidivate experienced a higher recidivism. Then, we document that individuals do take into account the observed effects of the policy in their voting decisions. In municipalities with a higher incentive to recidivate voters “punished” the political coalition who put forward such pardon (center-left) in the first post-pardon parliamentary elections.

This shows that worse observable effects of the policy at the local level, imply worse electoral outcomes for politicians responsible for such policy. What are the mechanisms that drive this result? We show that where the incentive to recidivate is higher newspapers report more crime news on pardoned individual recidivating. Moreover, voters update their beliefs about the competence of the incumbent coalition to deal with crime. Importantly, a higher incentive to recidivate was not associated with individuals being more likely to perceive crime as the most important issue in Italy or in their city. This suggests that votes correctly associated the pardon with the recidivism of pardoned inmates and not with crime in general.


A different version of this article was originally published in VoxEU.org [2].