Penalty Compression

Making all offenses capital offenses can have unintended effects. From Slate Star Codex (post) :

The Uprising of Chen Sheng and Wu Guang (source)
The Uprising of Chen Sheng and Wu Guang (source)

Chen Sheng was an officer serving the Qin Dynasty, famous for their draconian punishments. He was supposed to lead his army to a rendezvous point, but he got delayed by heavy rains and it became clear he was going to arrive late. The way I always hear the story told is this:

Chen turns to his friend Wu Guang and asks “What’s the penalty for being late?”

“Death,” says Wu.

“And what’s the penalty for rebellion?”

“Death,” says Wu.

“Well then…” says Chen Sheng.

And thus began the famous Dazexiang Uprising, which caused thousands of deaths and helped usher in a period of instability and chaos that resulted in the fall of the Qin Dynasty three years later.


Broken Windows Theory provided an opposite view, but it has been largely discredited. See Broken Windows Theory Broken

The Rockefeller Drug Laws provide one example of Penalty Compression. It didn’t work out well.

Source: Penalty Compression


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