Fines for illicit drug use do not prevent future crime: evidence from randomly assigned judges

September 2022
Sergey Alexeev, Don Weatherburn, Fines for illicit drug use do not prevent future crime: evidence from randomly assigned judges, Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Volume 200, 2022, Pages 555-575, ISSN 0167-2681,

Background: In NSW, persons found by police to be in possession or use of a prohibited drug can be dealt with in several ways. If the drug is cannabis, the amount of drug involved is less than 15 grams, and the person admits to the offence, they can be cautioned and released. Cannabis cautions, however, can only be given twice to the same individual and not to a person who has prior convictions for a drug offence or prior convictions involving violence or sexual assault. After two cautions, or if either of the other just mentioned conditions apply, the person must be referred to Local Court.

Methods: As noted earlier, the data for this study were drawn from the Reoffending Database (ROD); a reoffending database constructed and maintained by the NSW BOCSAR (Hua and Fitzgerald, 2006). The ROD data used in the current study consists of (a) all Local Court appearances where the principal offence involved possession or use of a prohibited drug; (b) the offender was not in custody at the time of the offence; (c) the court appearance occurred between January 1994 and January 2017.4

The selection criteria resulted in a sample of 76,366 cases. Because we aim to generate an IV that captures magistrate leniency as accurately as possible (and, thus, have an IV that is highly predictive of the fines), we use this large sample (referred to as Full Sample) to construct it. However, when estimating the effect of fines on reoffending, we restrict the sample to cases where the offender was born during or after 1984 (referred to as Estimation Sample). This restriction ensures that we have the full criminal history of each person involved in the study (the age of criminal responsibility is ten and our data runs from 1994). The same approach is followed by Williams and Weatherburn (2022). They use the same data source and a similar identification strategy.

We examine the impact of fines on three outcomes: (a) reconviction within two years for an offence of any type; (b) reconviction within two years for a new drug use/possession offence involving the same drug type as the index appearance; (c) reconviction within two years for a drug use/possession offence involving any drug type.

Read the full article in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization