Thursday, December 31, 2009

Judges Consider New Factor at Sentencing: Military Service

Wall Street Journal editorial "Judges Consider New Factor at Sentencing: Military Service" (December 31st, 2009) waves its hands at, but fails to actually observe any externalities in military service that require the parallel justice system it describes. Specifically, it notes that military veterans coming back from foreign deployment have received special judicial treatment in light of their service.

As more soldiers return home from combat overseas and end up in the criminal-justice system, a number of state and federal judges are deciding to show former soldiers leniency in light of their service. Some veterans are receiving probation coupled with psychological treatment, generally for nonviolent crimes that normally would land them in prison.

The article gives an example of one judge's reasoning:

'We dump all kinds of money to get soldiers over there and train them to kill, but we don't do anything to reintegrate them into our society,' says John L. Kane, a federal judge in Denver. Earlier this month, Mr. Kane sentenced an Iraq war veteran convicted of bribery to probation instead of prison.

Yet Judge Kane's argument does not appear to have sound foundations, in the understanding of Corrections. The United States has a volunteer army. Individuals who sign up are doing so because the total discounted lifetime path of wages (cognitive and monetary) are higher than their next best alternative. If they were not, individuals would choose their "next best" (contradictorily, their best) alternative.

If the cost of joining the army, including the probability an individual survives, breaks down psychologically and commits crimes upon their return is too high, individuals will opt out of military service. They will do so until wages are increased or the future costs that cause them to commit crimes are decreased. This is the proper market solution to unfortunate military conditions. If military service is unattractive and unfortunate, fix it through wages, rather than through fringe benefits, like reducing disincentives on producing negative externalities to others (crime), an unsound economic proposition.

Individuals who perform military service are paid in a variety of ways. The public honors them as protectors of freedom. They are paid a wage. They gain fringe benefits through discriminatory governmental hiring practices. The military should make sure it is paying in the most efficient manner, and it is by no means clear that removing disincentives from criminal activity is welfare-enhancing.

The only case in which offering these fringe benefits to soldiers makes sense to Corrections is if ex ante the military has difficulty predicting the single individual of many to pay higher wages in the form of a light sentence, and ex post it can identify them, that the value of this benefit is high, and the moral hazard it poses is low, an unconvincing conjecture.

One might add that there could simply be sample selection in sentencing. Individuals with military service might be less prone to recidivism, incarcerating them less effective, and lighter sentences may be efficient. The article does not address this, though Corrections sees it as a possibility.

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