Volume 114, Issue 4, April 2017
Punishment: A Costly Signal?
In “Punishment as a Costly Signal of Reform,” Jim Staihar argues that prisons should provide inmates with opportunities to sacrifice in ways that signal their genuine reform to others. I first show why Staihar’s program would be valuable, but only in restricted contexts. I then argue that costly signaling programs will usually be either not sufficiently costly to be taken seriously by the signal’s receivers or not rational for inmates in harsh prison environments to complete. Next, I consider the worry that some inmates will choose to participate in costly signaling programs as mimics, rendering ineffective the signals of truly reformed inmates. What Staihar must say, but does not, is why the non-mimicker’s expected utility gain will be sufficiently higher than the mimicker’s such that only sincere participation is incentivized. I conclude by showing why Staihar’s proposal could nevertheless be a valuable part of a hybrid program of legal punishment.