A Bit More on the Law & Economics of the Godfather:

I'll just add one quick thought to Ilya's comments on the law & economics of the Godfather. We are all by now probably familiar with the prisoner's dilemma. In the literal prisoner's dilemma, the problem arises because of the inability of the two isolated prisoner's to communicate and coordinate, thereby leading to both prisoner's defecting and a greater sentence for both. This is the suboptimal outcome for both of them (although the optimal outcome for society, a point that is often overlooked).

So what is the solution to the literal prisoner's dilemma? The mafia or some other sort of organized crime (such as gangs). One of the things that these institutions do is to solve the coordination problem among prisoners by promising them that the personal costs of defection (talking) will be higher than cooperation (keeping quiet). Because even if you talk and get a reduced sentence, your life after that is likely to be short and violent. So the mafia solves the coordination game by promising a higher cost from talking than by being quite. Ingenious (in a nefarious sort of way). This may provide some explanation for why these organized crime operations seem to gain and hold great market share in the industries in which they operate.

One response to this is, of course, is the witness protection program, which is designed to overcome this coordination solution. That's the carrot. But another solution was suggested to me a few years ago by a student in my Public Choice and the Law class. He arged that much-maligned mandatory minimum sentences may do the same thing by providing a stick to induce the suspect to talk. Mandatory minimums make it possible for a prosecutor to precommit to a serious and predictable punishment on the back end, rather than leaving it up to a judge with greater sentencing discretion across a wider range. Let me stress that this is not intended to be an endorsement (or the opposite) of mandatory minimum sentences. I note that in the Sopranos, for instance, through the years there have been recurrent expressions of concern about mandatory minimums.

My student started writing up the paper as a law review article, so maybe someday he'll publish it some day (at least I've never seen any scholars offer this particular argument in favor of mandatory minimum sentences).