Benjamin Lessing, F. Daniel Hidalgo

Counterproductive Punishment: How Prison Gangs Undermine State Authority

Does incarceration increase criminal activity?

Contemporary prison gangs present new and confounding challenges for states. In Central America and Brazil, as well as the US, prison gangs have evolved from small predatory groups to sophisticated criminal organizations with the capacity to organize street-level crime, radically alter patterns of criminal violence, and, in the extreme, hold governments hostage to debilitating, orchestrated violence and disruption. States enact mass incarceration policies to incapacitate and deter individual criminals, but these policies may have an unintended consequence of strengthening existing criminal networks. Lessing applies a formal model to leading cases from across the Americas to test this hypothesis. His analysis reveals that policies that make incarceration more likely and sentences harsher strengthen the power and influence of prison gangs, and thereby increase crime on the street. Lessing recommends a containment approach that strikes a balance between hardline repression and accommodation. Policymakers should aim to: increasingly acknowledge gang presence and power, rather than deny or obfuscate it; set rules of the game that take advantage of gang leaders’ ability to pacify criminal markets while demarcating realms where the state can slowly supplant gangs; use repression more strategically to enforce these rules, creating incentives for gang leaders to avoid violence and antisocial behavior; and put greater state, civil-society, and international resources into recuperating state authority in non-criminal areas where gangs currently hold sway.

Rationality and Society (forthcoming)

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