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Prisons Do Not Reduce Recidivism The High Cost of Ignoring Science

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Abstract

One of the major justifications for the rise of mass incarceration in the United States is that placing offenders behind bars reduces recidivism by teaching them that “crime does not pay.” This rationale is based on the view that custodial sanctions are uniquely painful and thus exact a higher cost than noncustodial sanctions. An alternative position, developed mainly by criminologists, is that imprisonment is not simply a “cost” but also a social experience that deepens illegal involvement. Using an evidence-based approach, we conclude that there is little evidence that prisons reduce recidivism and at least some evidence to suggest that they have a criminogenic effect. The policy implications of this finding are significant, for it means that beyond crime saved through incapacitation, the use of custodial sanctions may have the unanticipated consequence of making society less safe.
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The Prison Journal
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DOI: 10.1177/0032885511415224
2011 91: 48S originally published online 19 July 2011The Prison Journal
Francis T. Cullen, Cheryl Lero Jonson and Daniel S. Nagin
Science
Prisons Do Not Reduce Recidivism : The High Cost of Ignoring
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1University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH
2Northern Kentucky University, Highland Heights, KY
3Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA
Corresponding Author:
Francis T. Cullen, School of Criminal Justice, PO Box 210389, University of Cincinnati,
Cincinnati, OH 45221-0389
Email: cullenft@ucmail.uc.edu
Prisons Do Not
Reduce Recidivism:
The High Cost
of Ignoring Science
Francis T. Cullen1, Cheryl Lero Jonson2,
and Daniel S. Nagin3
Abstract
One of the major justifications for the rise of mass incarceration in the United
States is that placing offenders behind bars reduces recidivism by teaching
them that “crime does not pay.” This rationale is based on the view that cus-
todial sanctions are uniquely painful and thus exact a higher cost than noncus-
todial sanctions. An alternative position, developed mainly by criminologists,
is that imprisonment is not simply a “cost” but also a social experience that
deepens illegal involvement. Using an evidence-based approach, we conclude
that there is little evidence that prisons reduce recidivism and at least some
evidence to suggest that they have a criminogenic effect. The policy implications
of this finding are significant, for it means that beyond crime saved through
incapacitation, the use of custodial sanctions may have the unanticipated con-
sequence of making society less safe.
Keywords
effect of imprisonment, specific deterrence, prison policy, evidence-based
corrections
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Cullen et al. 49S
On any given day, more than 2.4 million Americans are under some form of
imprisonment (Sabol, West, & Cooper, 2009). In more concrete terms, 1 in
100 adults is behind bars; for African Americans the figure is 1 in 11 (Pew Center
on the States, 2008). In the early 1970s, the state and federal prison imprison-
ment rate had remained stable for a half century at about 100 per 100,000 resi-
dents (Blumstein & Cohen, 1973), and the inmate population hovered around
200,000. Today, this per-100,000 rate has jumped to more than 500, and
those housed in state and federal institutions stands at more than 1.6 million
(Sabol et al., 2009). When jail inmates are included, the imprisonment rate is
760. Internationally, these statistics make the United States the world leader
in incarceration, locking up 750,000 more individuals than China and 1.5
million more than Russia (World Prison Brief, 2009). The imprisonment rate
for European nations is a fraction of America’s, with Spain (164) and Eng-
land and Wales (154) at the high end. Canada, our neighbor to the North, has
a rate of 116 (Hartney, 2006; World Prison Brief, 2009). Although the United
States accounts for 5% of the world’s population, it houses 25% of the 9 mil-
lion people incarcerated worldwide (Pew Center on the States, 2008)
This numerical litany is recited so often that its statement approaches banality.
For many decades now, serious students of crime have been decrying the
seemingly intractable growth in the nation’s prison population (see, for example,
Currie, 1985, 1998). The mass incarceration movement, however, has been
deaf to criticism. Most elected officials jumped on board this campaign, either
because they welcomed sending offenders to prison or because they were
afraid to appear lenient on crime. But perhaps we have arrived at a true turning
point in correctional policy. Much as the subprime housing market bubble has
burst, we are witnessing signs that the imprisonment bubble is bursting as
well. As states struggle to balance public treasuries, they are discovering that
prisons are consuming vast sums of tax revenues that might be spent on other
government services. Recently in California, then - Governor Schwarzenegger
(2010) called for a constitutional amendment that would prohibit spending
more on prisons than on the state’s colleges. It is instructive that as of
January 1, 2010, state prison populations declined for the first time in 38
years (Pew Center on the States, 2010).
In this context, the political space has been created to have a serious con-
versation about the effective use of prisons. Only the most criminologically
ignorant among us would deny that high-risk offenders exist and that, due to
their strong criminal propensities, warrant a custodial placement. Nonethele ss,
it is equally clear that over the past four decades, too many elected officials
have enabled their states to binge on imprisonment without weighing the
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consequences of doing so—especially for the next generation. We now face
the reality of the future that past officials have chosen for us. We cannot leave
a similar legacy for those who will follow us.
In this essay, we offer one starting point for such a conversation about
making new correctional choices: the science of the effects of imprisonment.
We recognize that sometimes offenders will be sentenced to prison because
the sheer heinousness of their crimes leaves little choice. But the mass use of
imprisonment also has been widely justified on the grounds that locking up
offenders is a uniquely effective strategy for protecting public safety. This
assertion deserves to be scrutinized. Is it rooted in scientific evidence or a
reflection of mere hubris? The answer to this question is consequential. If send-
ing offenders to prison does not reduce their criminal involvement, then we
should know this fact and be far more judicious in when we employ custodial
sanctions. As a number of commentators have argued, correctional policy and
practice need to be evidence-based (see, for example, MacKenzie, 2006).
The use of hospitalization is perhaps a useful point of comparison. On any
given day, about 540,000 Americans lie in hospital beds. As a society, we are
concerned about not sending patients to hospitals who can be treated effec-
tively in the community. Hospital stays are expensive and they carry the risk
of exposure to infections. As such, hospital care should be reserved for the
most at-risk patients who cannot be otherwise treated elsewhere. Furthermore,
for those sent to hospitals, every step should be taken to ensure that iatrogenic
(i.e., adverse) effects are avoided.
In a similar manner, we should only use prison when this penalty can
be shown to produce better results than noncustodial sanctions. For advo-
cates of imprisonment, they thus must be able to show that placing an offender
behind bars not only does not have iatrogenic effects but also makes the
person “better”—that is, less likely to reoffend. Advocates assert that prisons
are able to have such an effect because they are more costly—painful—to
offenders than a “lenient” sentence in the community. They argue, in short,
that prisons scare offenders straight—or, in the language of criminologists—
have a specific deterrent effect. Over the past 3 years, we have probed the
effect of imprisonment on reoffending. We readily admit that the existing
research is of variable quality and, given the salience of the mass imprison-
ment issue, in short supply. Still, having pulled together the best available
evidence, we have been persuaded that prisons do not reduce recidivism more
than noncustodial sanctions.
We will immediately soften this bold and unqualified claim—and harden it
as well. On the one hand, it may well be possible that when the effect of prison
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is fully unpacked., researchers will discover that incarceration has variable
effects, leading some categories of offenders to recidivate less often. On the
other hand, the overall impact of imprisonment might not simply be null but
be iatrogenic; that is, prisons might have a criminogenic effect on those who
experience it. Our broad claim here is that, across the offender population,
imprisonment does not have special powers in persuading the wayward to
go straight. To the extent that prisons are used because of the belief that they
reduce reoffending more than other penalty options, then this policy is unjusti-
fied. The evidence substantiating this conclusion is presented below.
Before proceeding, we need to note briefly that prisons can reduce the crim-
inal participation of inmates in another way: simply by caging them so that they
cannot break the law in the community. This is called incapacitation—the
amount of crime not committed because offenders are behind bars and thus
physically unable to victimize citizens. There is no doubt that there is some
incapacitation effect. After all, if 2.4 million offenders are not on the street,
much crime would have to be prevented by this fact alone. Estimates of how
many offenses are saved vary by individual studies and depend on factors such
as the inmates’ risk level (high or low) and stage in their criminal career (near
the beginning or near the end) (Bushway & Paternoster, 2009; Kleiman, 2009).
The key policy question is thus not whether some offenders need to be inca-
pacitated but rather how many and for how long. Furthermore, most estimates
of the size of the incapacitation effect inadvertently rig the data in favor of find-
ing such an effect. This is because they compare how many crimes are prevented
if offenders are locked up as compared with doing nothing to them. Of course,
this comparison makes no sense because the alternative to imprisonment would
be some noncustodial penalty (Cullen & Jonson, 2012). A more balanced ques-
tion is whether more crime is saved through incapacitation versus placing
offenders in high-quality community treatment programs—and using the thou-
sands of dollars left over to fund crime prevention programs as well.
We also acknowledge that the threat of imprisonment may have a general
deterrent effect on the population writ large. A detailed discussion of these
effects is beyond the scope of our analysis. However, we can note that recent
reviews of the evidence by Durlauf and Nagin (2011, in press) conclude
there is scant evidence that further increasing our already long prison sen-
tences would have a general deterrent effect.
In any event, we recognize that a full discussion of how much to use
imprisonment—and with whom—will involve a reasoned assessment of the
incapacitation and general deterrence effects. Our more limited goal is to con-
sider the equally important issue of what happens to those placed in prison
after they are released into the community.
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Prisons as a Cost Versus an Experience
A key component of get-tough rhetoric is the assertion that throwing offend-
ers behind bars will teach them that crime does not pay. In criminology, this
idea is called rational choice theory. Its central premise is that people, includ-
ing offenders, tend to commit less of a behavior as the cost to them increases.
For example, as the price of cigarettes or gasoline rises, then people will smoke
and drive less often. Not everyone, of course, will stop smoking and driving.
But across all people, a general rationality will prevail: Rates of the behavior
will decrease as its price increases.
Advocates of the crime-pays idea see imprisonment as central to crime-
control policy. But why is this so? Many of the costs offenders suffer occur
prior to sentencing—arrest, pretrial detention, having to make bail, public humil-
iation, payment of legal fees, and worries over when and how their case will
be resolved (Feeley, 1979). Furthermore, community-based sanctions can exact
substantial costs from offenders. They can be lengthy, involve a high degree
of “intensive supervision,” mandate electronic monitoring and home confine-
ment, require random drug testing, and stipulate the payment of fines to the court
or restitution to victims (Byrne, Lurigio, & Petersilia, 1992; Caputo, 2004).
Indeed, surveys of offenders reveal that they are more likely to dread intensive
and lengthy community-based punishments than shorter prison terms (e.g.,
1 year in prison; see, for example, Moore, May, & Wood, 2008; Petersilia &
Deschenes, 1994). These findings complicate the assumption that imprison-
ment has a unique capacity to scare offenders straight.
Nonetheless, deterrence advocates make this assumption of unique effects.
In part, it may be because prison is qualitatively different in that it removes
offenders from the community and places them in a total institution. A practical
matter is also likely involved: As a sanction, imprisonment is easy to measure.
After consulting criminal justice records, scholars can determine who has or
has not been sent to prison and, among those incarcerated, can determine who
served more time behind bars. Their statistical tests will then enter a variable
for custody versus noncustody or for time served. The key point is that deter-
rence scholars wish to boil down punishment to a simple price tag. The theo-
retical prediction is that making crime more costly will, similar to the choice
of any other product, make the choice of crime less likely. Thus, when offenders
are compelled to pay for their crime with a prison sentence—or serve longer
rather than shorter terms—they will be less likely to recidivate.
By contrast, most criminologists reject the idea that the extended experience
of imprisonment can be adequately captured in terms of a simple price tag or a
cost. Such an approach truncates reality. When offenders are incarcerated,
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they enter a “prison community” (Clemmer, 1940) or a “society of captives”
(Sykes, 1958). For a lengthy period of time, they associate with other offend-
ers, endure the pains of imprisonment, risk physical victimization, are cut
off from family and prosocial contacts on the outside, and face stigmatiza-
tion as “cons.” Imprisonment is thus not simply a cost to be weighed in future
offending but, more important, a social influence that shapes inmates’ attitudes
toward crime and violence, peer networks, ties to the conventional order, and
identity.
Most criminologists would predict that, on balance, offenders become more,
rather than less, criminally oriented due to their prison experience. In academic
language, they would argue that imprisonment increases exposure to crimino-
genic risk factors. These would include differential associations with offend-
ers in a “school of crime,” enduring noxious strains, having conventional
social bonds severed, and facing stigmatizing labels that foster anger and a
sense of defiance. Even if inmates might wish to avoid prisons in the future,
they reenter society harboring an intensified, if not overpowering, propensity
to offend.
We have, then, two diametrically opposed views about the effect of impris-
onment on recidivism. Deterrence theory predicts that prisons increase the
cost of offending and thus reduce recidivism. Social experience theory predicts
that prisons increase criminal propensity and thus increase recidivism. Oddly,
these two competing views have not been subjected to a wealth of rigorous
empirical analyses. Nonetheless, some relevant research can be cited in
attempt to decipher which theory is more accurate.
The Failure of Prisons
One way to assess the capacity of prisons to reduce reoffending is to inspect
rates of recidivism. If such rates are high—if numerous offenders return to
crime—then this finding would call into question specific deterrence theory.
Of course, even with high recidivism rates, custodial sanctions might stop
more crime than noncustodial sanctions. Still, if a high proportion of inmates
reoffend, this would be like saying that a high proportion of hospital patients
are not cured of their ailments. Given the inordinate investment of resources
that 24/7 care in a total institution requires, the efficacy of prisons—or
hospitals—would be problematic.
In fact, the news for prisons is not promising. In one of the most sophisti-
cated assessments of recidivism, Langan and Levin (2002) traced the criminal
involvement of state prisoners released in 1994 (for similar results, see Beck &
Shipley, 1989). Within 3 years of release, 67.5% of the prisoners were rearrested
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for a new offense, 46.9% were reconvicted for a new crime, and 25.4% were
resentenced to prison. Notably, within 3 months of release, roughly 30% of
the inmates had been rearrested. For the sample, Langan and Levin also exam-
ined the rate of return to prison for either new crimes or technical violations,
discovering that 51.8% ended up back behind bars. Furthermore, these figures
surely underestimate the extent to which these prisoners recidivated because
they include only those cases in which officials detected a releasee commit-
ting a crime.
These findings are inconsistent with prisons as a powerful specific deter-
rent. Remember, prisons are not a mild or temporary behavioral incentive—
such as glancing at a price tag when deciding to purchase a coat or cell phone.
Rather, the cost of imprisonment is imposed on offenders daily and for months,
if not for years, on end. Despite this reality, prisons appear to be a weak change
agent. Indeed, high recidivism rates suggest that many offenders simply are
not moved by imprisonment to stay out of trouble.
Five Illustrative Studies
In recent years, criminologists have become increasingly interested in whether
contact with the justice system (and not simply prisons) makes offenders more
or less criminal (see, for example, Sherman, 1993). These studies typically
test specific deterrence theory against labeling theory—a perspective that
hypothesizes that such contact has the ironic and unanticipated effect of increas-
ing offenders’ criminal propensity by stigmatizing them, cutting their family
bonds, increasing their association with other offenders, and reducing their
employment opportunities. Notably, this newer body of research is tilting decid-
edly in favor of labeling theory.
For example, Chiricos, Barrick, Bales, and Bontrager (2007) examined a
Florida law that allowed judges that sentenced felons to probation to withhold
a formal adjudication of guilt, with the record of arrest vanishing if probation
was successfully completed. In essence, this allowed for a natural experiment
in which some offenders received a felony label whereas others did not. Based
on a study of 95,919 men and women over 2 years, they discovered that those
who received a formal label were more likely to recidivate. Similarly, data
from the Rochester Youth Survey show that formal criminal labeling—juvenile
justice intervention—was associated with increased unlawful conduct both in
the short term and into adulthood (Bernberg & Krohn, 2003; Bernberg, Krohn,
& Rivera, 2006; see also Gatti, Tremblay, & Vitaro, 2009). Furthermore, in a
review of 29 controlled trials conducted for The Campbell Collaboration,
Petrosino, Turpin-Petrosino, and Guckenburg (2010) found that juvenile justice
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system processing “does not appear to have a crime control effect. In fact, almost
all of the results were negative” (p. 6).
Taken together, these findings create doubt about the ability of criminal pen-
alties to function as a cost that, when imposed, dissuades offenders from
recidivating. Again, these sanctions risk disrupting conventional relationships
and pushing offenders into more antisocial contexts. Still, we need to address
the more significant issue of whether, despite their potential problems, custo-
dial sanctions can be shown to have a specific deterrent effect. In this section,
we thus consider five important studies. We used three criteria in deciding
which investigations to highlight. First, the studies had to be of the highest
quality so that their findings could not be attributed to methodological bias.
Second, the studies had to approach the issue of prison effects from different
angles so that their findings could not be attributed to the use of a particular
methodological strategy. And third, the studies had to be conducted in differ-
ent times and/or places so that their findings could not be attributed to a specific
social context. Collectively, these five works illustrate the limits of incarceration
as a crime-control strategy. In the next section, we will consider systematic
reviews of evidence on this topic. A similar conclusion will be reached.
We begin with the classic study by Sampson and Laub (1993) published
in Crime in the Making. Reanalyzing the Gluecks’ data, they examined how
length of incarceration as a juvenile and adult influenced offending. They found
no direct effects, leading them to note that “these results would seem to sug-
gest that incarceration is unimportant in explaining crime over the life course”
(p. 165). Such a conclusion, however, would be misleading. As Sampson and
Laub point out, controlling for criminal propensity, time incarcerated substan-
tially lessened job stability, which in turn affected recidivism. Phrased differ-
ently, imprisonment had strong indirect criminogenic effects. “Perhaps the
most troubling aspect of our analysis,” conclude Sampson and Laub, “is that
the effects of long periods of incarceration appear quite severe when mani-
fested in structural labeling—many of the Glueck men were simply cut off
from the most promising avenues of desistance from crime” (pp. 255-256;
see Wimer, Sampson, & Laub, 2008).
Second, Cassia Spohn and David Holleran (2002) examined 1993 data from
offenders convicted of felonies in Jackson County, Missouri (which contains
Kansas City). Following subjects for 48 months, they compared the recidi-
vism rates of 776 offenders placed on probation versus 301 offenders sent to
prison. Their message was straightforward: “We find no evidence that impris-
onment reduces the likelihood of recidivism” (p. 329). Indeed, they found
that being sent to prison was associated with increased recidivism and that
those incarcerated reoffended more quickly than those placed on probation.
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Furthermore, they discovered that the criminogenic effect of prison was espe-
cially high for drug offenders, who were 5 to 6 times more likely to recidivate
than those placed on probation.
Third, Smith and Gendreau (2010; see also Smith, 2006) also reveal that
imprisonment might have differential effects on offenders. For 2 years, they
followed a sample of 5,469 male offenders serving time in Canadian federal
penitentiaries. Notably, these institutions had a commitment to rehabilitating
offenders. Their analysis showed that for high-risk offenders, the impact of
imprisonment varied by whether inmates received appropriate rehabilitation
(which reduced recidivism) or inappropriate treatment (which increased
recidivism) (for a discussion of appropriate treatment, see Andrews & Bonta,
2010). Most telling, regardless of the type of programming received, low-risk
offenders were negatively impacted by incarceration, experiencing inflated
recidivism rates.
Fourth, Nieuwbeerta, Nagin, and Blokland (2009) used data from the
Criminal Career and Life-Course Study, which is based in the Netherlands.
They studied 1,475 men who were imprisoned for the first time between ages
18 and 38. The focus on first-time imprisonment was innovative because it
avoided the problem of discerning the effects of current as opposed to past
incarceration experiences. The comparison group included 1,315 offenders
who were convicted but not imprisoned. To minimize problems of selection
bias, Nieuwbeerta et al. used a sophisticated methodology (i.e., group-based
trajectory modeling combined with risk-set matching). Over a 3-year follow-
up period, they reported that “first-time imprisonment is associated with an
increase in criminal activity”—a finding that held across offense type (p. 227).
We should add that these results are important because they occurred in a
nation where the conditions of confinement are less harsh than in the United
States and for a sample where the mean stay in prison was only 14 weeks
(and only 1% of the sample served more than 1 year). It is possible that the
effects of imprisonment might be stronger in the United States or that any form
of imprisonment is so disruptive as to have untoward consequences.
Fifth, Nagin and Snodgrass (2010) recently took advantage of a system used
in Pennsylvania (and in other states) whereby offenders are randomly assigned
to judges. Research on the effect of incarceration on recidivism based on
nonexperimental data may be biased because those sent to prison may differ
from those not sent to prison in systematic ways even with extensive statisti-
cal controls. Such hidden bias may then distort the results. To avoid this poten-
tial problem, Nagin and Snodgrass capitalized on the random assignment
of cases to judges in Pennsylvania—judges who differed in their harshness.
This allowed Nagin and Snodgrass to compare the recidivism of the caseloads
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of judges with very different propensities to send convicted defendants to prison
or jail. If incarceration specifically deterred, then the recidivism rates of the
caseloads assigned to harsh judges should have been lower than the caseloads
assigned to more lenient judges. But this did not occur. The analysis revealed
no differences in the recidivism of caseloads across judges.
These studies thus illustrate how, across various contexts and methodolo-
gies, scholars have investigated the effect of imprisonment. In the least, they
suggest that incarcerating offenders is not a magic bullet with special powers
to invoke such dread that offenders refrain from recidivating when released. If
anything, it appears that imprisonment is a crude strategy that does not address
the underlying causes of recidivism and thus that has no, or even criminogenic,
effects on offenders. As we see below, systematic reviews of all available
studies tend to confirm this conclusion.
Systematic Reviews of Evidence
A systematic review attempts to examine a number of studies so as to provide
an overall assessment of how some factor—in this case, imprisonment—
affects criminal involvement. Gendreau, Goggin, Cullen, and Andrews (2000)
undertook one of the first of these reviews, concluding that “clearly, the prison
deterrent hypothesis is not supported” (p. 13). Across all comparisons, they
found that incarceration resulted in a 7% increase in recidivism compared
with a community sanction. They also examined the weighted effect size;
this is a statistic that takes into account the size of each study and gives more
“weight” to the findings computed on larger as opposed to smaller samples.
In this analysis, the impact of a custodial sanction was not criminogenic, with
the effect falling to zero. Nonetheless, there was still no evidence that sentenc-
ing offenders to prison reduced recidivism. A subsequent extension of this
research by Smith, Goggin, and Gendreau (2002) reached similar results—
with one important exception. They discovered that when the analysis focused
on studies with high-quality research designs, the criminogenic effect associ-
ated with imprisonment jumped to 11%. Even when the weighted mean effect
size was calculated, the iatrogenic effect of imprisonment remained, with cus-
todial sanctions associated with an 8% increase in recidivism.
In a more extensive consideration of the literature, Villettaz, Killias, and
Zoder (2006) investigated 23 studies that included 27 comparisons of custo-
dial versus noncustodial sanctions. Custodial sanctions were associated with
reduced recidivism only twice, with increased recidivism for 11 comparisons,
and with no difference for 14 comparisons. A subsequent “meta-analysis
based on four controlled and one natural experiment” revealed “no significant
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difference” between custodial and noncustodial sanctions. In the least, these
findings again suggest no clear specific deterrent effect of imprisonment.
Notably, a similar review by Nagin, Cullen, and Jonson (2009) examined
6 experimental/quasi-experimental, 11 matching, and 31 regression-based
studies. They echoed Villettaz et al.’s call for more rigorous studies. They
also concluded that incarceration has a null or slight criminogenic effect on
recidivism.
Finally, in the most systematic review, Jonson (2010) meta-analyzed
57 studies. She discovered that, overall, the impact of a custodial versus a
noncustodial sanction was slightly criminogenic, increasing recidivism 14%.
When Jonson limited her assessment to studies of the highest methodological
quality, the effect size for custodial sanctions was reduced but still crimino-
genic, boosting reoffending 5%. Furthermore, she examined a limited num-
ber of studies that explored whether harsher prison conditions were associated
with lower reduction (see, for example, Chen & Shapiro, 2007). Inconsistent
with deterrence theory, harsher conditions were associated with increased
recidivism.
Again, we must caution that despite the mass usage of imprisonment, the
research in this area is not extensive or of high quality. Precise estimates of
prison effects are not possible, and more work is needed to unpack whether
the prison experience has differential impacts on offenders of varying charac-
teristics. Nonetheless, when all sources of information are taken into account,
the weight of the evidence falls clearly on one side of the issue: Placing offend-
ers in prison does not appear to reduce their chances of recidivating.
Conclusion: The High Cost of Ignoring Science
Imagine a medical system in which very sick and mildly sick patients are
hospitalized with virtually no idea of whether they will emerge cured, termi-
nally ill, or unchanged. Theories abound, however. On one side, we have those
arguing that hospitals make patients less ill than if left in the community. On the
other side, we have those arguing that hospitals expose patients to disease
risk factors (e.g., infections from other patients). Research trying to decipher
which view was correct is widely scattered and, with a few exceptions, of
poor quality. But this does not cause too many doubts about the practice of
mass hospitalization. Those institutionalizing sick patients claim that they
have a “gut-level feeling” that hospitalization has curative effects. After
all, they know a bunch of patients who reentered the community and did not
get sick again. They do not need to consult any scientific studies to know
that hospitals reduce repeated illness.
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If this situation were to occur, the public would call those in the medical
profession quacks, file endless lawsuits for malpractice, and demand studies
to prove which interventions were safe or unsafe. But if we were to substitute
the word “imprisonment” for “hospitalization” in the previous paragraph,
we would be roughly describing the current use of prisons and of correc-
tional policy.
The era of mass imprisonment has taken over corrections even though
nobody has had a firm idea of whether placing offenders behind bars makes
them more or less likely to recidivate. To be sure, hubris has not been in short
supply. We include criminologists in this critique because, with little data at
their disposal, they often have claimed that prisons are criminogenic. But they
are the least of the problem; few people listen to them—or should I say “us”!
Most important, they do not have power over other people’s lives. By contrast,
many policy makers and judges, showing equal hubris, have made bold claims
about prisons’ specific deterrent effect when taking actions that matter a great
deal—that is, when placing offenders in custody for years, if not decades.
They have perhaps acted on the heartfelt belief that they were protecting vic-
tims and the public. Even so, we should all realize that things that seem
“obvious” to us—especially views based on so-called commonsense—can
be incorrect. In the end, it is essential to test our understandings, including
those about prisons, with the best scientific data available. And depending
on what the evidence tells us, we need to have the intellectual and moral cour-
age to change our minds and our policies.
We recognize, of course, that the decision to incarcerate is complex, involv-
ing the seriousness of the act, the past record and culpability of the offender,
and community values that may wish some crimes to be harshly punished.
Nonetheless, science should be one factor that is considered in sentencing
policy. When formulating public policy, officials should know clearly whether
imprisoning offenders will make them more or less criminal upon their return
to society. Without such knowledge, ignorance reigns, and the risk rises that
prison policies will needlessly endanger community safety, drain the public
treasury, and entrap offenders in a life in crime. There is, in short, a high cost
for ignoring the science of prison effects (see also Van Voorhis, 1987).
This article is rooted in the belief that correctional policy and practice
should be evidence-based. We reiterate our observation that it is inexplicable
that we place so many Americans behind bars and have only a weak scientific
understanding of the effect of imprisonment. If nothing else, we trust we have
exposed this instance of correctional quackery and will inspire efforts to cor-
rect it through high-quality research (Latessa, Cullen, & Gendreau, 2002).
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60S The Prison Journal Supplement to 91(3)
In the interim, our review of the evidence does allow for a provisional assess-
ment of the likely effects of imprisonment on recidivism. Three observations,
based on the existing science, are possible:
With some confidence, we can conclude that, across all offenders,
prisons do not have a specific deterrent effect. Custodial sentences
do not reduce recidivism more than noncustodial sanctions.
With less confidence, we can propose that prisons, especially gratu-
itously painful ones, may be criminogenic. On balance, the evidence
tilts in the direction of those proposing that the social experiences of
imprisonment are likely crime generating.
Although the evidence is very limited, it is likely that low-risk offenders
are most likely to experience increased recidivism due to incarcera-
tion. From a policy perspective, it is essential to screen offenders
for their risk level and to be cautious about imprisoning those
not deeply entrenched in a criminal career or manifesting attitudes,
relationships, and traits associated with recidivism.
For policy makers, these findings should be sobering and inspire a willing-
ness to know more about the science of imprisonment. We need to take a giant
collective step backward and understand that imprisonment is not a panacea
for the crime problem. As with any other human-made social institution, it has
its functions and its limitations. It likely does a good job exacting justice on
those who have inflicted serious harm on others and of warehousing the truly
wicked. But it also seems that as an instrument for changing offenders for the
better—for persuading them to avoid future crime—it is without much value.
It is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss in detail potential alterna-
tives to the use of prison as the lynchpin of the nation’s effort to control crime.
But we can end with three important observations. First, policy makers and
judges must forfeit the belief that imprisonment is the only sanction that pun-
ishes offenders—that all other penalties are tantamount to defendants “getting
off easy.” As surveys of offenders show, community-based sanctions are expe-
rienced as punitive and impose social and financial costs on offenders (Moore
et al., 2008; Petersilia & Deschenes, 1994). Prisons have no special powers to
scare offenders straight. They should be a sanction of last resort, not first resort.
Second, when high-risk, serious offenders are within the grasp of the
correctional system—including while they are incarcerated—sound policy
would demand subjecting them to evidence-based rehabilitation programs.
These interventions have been shown to reduce recidivism and thus to be an
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Cullen et al. 61S
important tool in protecting public safety (Andrews & Bonta, 2010; MacKenzie,
2006). The American public, moreover, strongly supports a correctional sys-
tem that embraces rehabilitation as one of its core goals (Cullen, Fisher, &
Applegate, 2000).
Third, the investment of extraordinary resources in mass imprisonment
has diverted money and attention from other policies that might prevent sub-
stantial amounts of crime, including in high-crime, inner-city areas. These
include situational crime prevention programs that seek to reduce opportunities
to offend (e.g., use of alarms, surveillance cameras, and guardians over prop-
erty or potential victims), problem-oriented policing that encourages officers
to know where and why crimes are concentrated and to develop proactive
strategies to solve this “problem,” and early intervention efforts that seek to
identify at-risk youths and to work with families, peers groups, and schools so
as to divert these youngsters from a criminal career (Durlauf & Nagin, 2011,
in press Farrington & Welsh, 2007; Felson & Boba, 2010; Kleiman, 2009;
Waller, 2006). A wise approach to crime control thus would be broad based
and have a clear appreciation—given the rigorous scientific evidence now
available—for the limits of what imprisonment can accomplish.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research,
authorship, and/or publication of this article.
Funding
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publica-
tion of this article.
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Bios
Francis T. Cullen is Distinguished Research Professor of Criminal Justice and
Sociology, University of Cincinnati. His recent works include Unsafe in the Ivory
Tower: The Sexual Victimization of College Women, the Encyclopedia of
Criminological Theory, and Correctional Theory: Context and Consequences. His
current research areas include the organization of criminological knowledge and
rehabilitation as a correctional policy. Past president of both the American Society
of Criminology and the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, he was recently hon-
ored with ASC’s Edwin H. Sutherland Award.
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Cullen et al. 65S
Cheryl Lero Jonson is assistant professor, Department of Political Science and
Criminal Justice, Northern Kentucky University. Her publications include Correctional
Theory: Context and Consequences, and The Origins of American Criminology. Her
current research interests include the impact of prison on recidivism, sources of
inmate violence, and the use of meta-analysis to organize criminological knowledge.
Daniel S. Nagin is Teresa and H. John Heinz III University Professor of Public Policy
and Statistics in the Heinz College, Carnegie Mellon University. An elected fellow of
both the American Society of Criminology and the American S ociety for the Adv ancemen t
of Science, he received the 2006 American Society of Criminology Edwin H.
Sutherland Award. His research focuses on the evolution of criminal and antisocial
behaviors over the life course, the deterrent effect of criminal and noncriminal pen-
alties on illegal behaviors, and the development of statistical methods for analyzing
longitudinal data. His writings include Group-based Modeling of Development
(Harvard University Press, 2005) and extensive journal publications.
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... Only 14.9% of defendants in Portugal were prosecuted in 2020, with 2.4%of those convicted [45]-and 17.2% of those sentenced to jail [46]. Furthermore, convictions seem to be inefficient and ineffective towards reoffending and recidivism [8,13,14], besides the personal, social, and economic costs associated with the imprisonment system [13,15]. ...
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When employees commit transgressions, organizations often use tools of organizational control to prevent them from transgressing again. We investigate whether organizations can use transgression transparency to rehabilitate transgressors. Although making transgressions transparent—which may result in stigmatization or public shaming—is generally assumed to be purely punitive, we show when and how it can foster rehabilitation. We draw on a longitudinal, qualitative dataset of 23 similarly situated transgressors at a military academy that added transparency to traditional punishment by requiring transgressors to wear a pin that signaled their transgression. Data from transgressors and from other organizational members revealed that instead of prompting persistent stigmatization, social awareness of the transgression prompted others’ inquiry, gradually engaging transgressors in a coactive process to develop a mutually acceptable narrative of their transgression through a mechanism we call personal narrative control. For that personal narrative to endure, transgressors needed to exercise self-control and avoid further transgressions, as they did in our study even after the pin was removed, signaling rehabilitation. We induce four contextual conditions for transgression transparency to trigger personal narrative control and theorize how they might generalize to other organizations seeking to rehabilitate transgressors.
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Criminal justice systems across the United States are reducing reliance on prison incarceration and moving toward more local and noncustodial types of responses to felony offenders. Rather than wholesale decarceration, states and counties are shifting felons along what we call a “continuum of control,” which allows for people who previously might have been incarcerated in state prison to be sentenced to jail, jail plus probation, or probation without a custodial spell. With some notable exceptions, existing research has focused primarily on contrasting prison versus community placements and ignored the intermediary alternatives between the poles of the continuum. In this study, we compare the recidivism outcomes of felons sentenced to prison versus those sentenced to jail, jail plus probation, and probation alone. On balance, our findings show that jail incarceration results in the same or lower rearrest and reconviction rates than incarceration in prison. We also find consistent evidence that while rearrests are frequently higher for probation with or without a jail spell, reconvictions are consistently lower for similarly situated offenders than prison. These findings provide partial evidence in support of policies that move people convicted of felonies to less costly, more local, and less confining alternatives than prison.
Thesis
Full-text available
Criminology has conventionally focussed on the onset and punishment of crime. Less attention is paid to how offenders reintegrate, exist, cope and move away from crime. However, there is a growing body of research interested in reintegration and desistance from crime. The literature on sex offender reintegration and desistance is limited but emerging, with studies exclusively involving child sex offenders remaining scarce. Therefore, this thesis has been designed to evaluate the reintegration experiences of child sex offenders in a community in England and Wales. Using a qualitative, semi-structured, individual interview approach, data were collected from 10 men (the participants) who had at least one current and at least one previous child sexual offence conviction. The index offences ranged from internet related charges, to rape. Data were additionally obtained from 11 professionals working with child sex offenders in the community. The professionals worked for either the National Probation Service (NPS), the police or Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA). The themes of resettlement, risk management and stigma were discussed, and an illustrative model of child sex offender reintegration was developed. The findings suggest the participants were vulnerable. They shared experiences of verbal and physical abuse at the hands of non-sex offenders, loss, fear, isolation and pressure. They were not afforded the opportunities to reintegrate with success in comparison to other offender types, with internet offenders' opportunities being lessened further. They used a variety of coping methods, including self-risk management, identity passing, avoidance and appropriate offence disclosure. In addition, the illustrative model highlighted how the men were active agents of their reintegration journey, rather than being passive. They shaped and negotiated their way through life in the community as men with child sexual offences in different and interesting ways, whilst being mindful of the stigma associated with this offence type.
Article
The objective of this Campbell systematic review is to answer the question: Does juvenile system processing reduce subsequent delinquency? The comprehensive search yielded 29 eligible controlled trials including 7,304 juveniles reported over a 35‐year period. Juvenile system processing, at least given the experimental evidence presented in this report, does not appear to have a crime control effect. In fact, almost all of the results are negative in direction, as measured by prevalence, incidence, severity, and self‐report outcomes. The results are not uniform across every study; one important moderating variable is the type of control group. Studies that compared system processing to a diversion program reported much larger negative effect sizes than those that compared it to “doing nothing”. Based on the evidence presented in this report, juvenile system processing appears to not have a crime control effect, and across all measures appears to increase delinquency. Given the additional financial costs associated with system processing (especially when compared to doing nothing) and the lack of evidence for any public safety benefit, jurisdictions should review their policies regarding the handling of juveniles. Executive Summary/Abstract BACKGROUND Justice practitioners have tremendous discretion on how to handle juvenile offenders. Police officers, district attorneys, juvenile court intake officers, juvenile and family court judges, and other officials can decide whether the juvenile should be “officially processed” by the juvenile justice system, diverted from the system to a program, counseling or some other services, or to do nothing at all (release the juvenile altogether). An important policy question is which strategy leads to the best outcomes for juveniles. This is an important question in the United States, but many other nations are concerned with the decision to formally process or divert juvenile offenders. There have been a number of randomized experiments in the juvenile courts that have examined the impact of juvenile system processing that should be gathered together in a systematic fashion to provide rigorous evidence about the impact of this decision on subsequent offending by juveniles. OBJECTIVES Our objective is to answer the question: Does juvenile system processing reduce subsequent delinquency? CRITERIA FOR INCLUSION OF STUDIES To be eligible, studies had to: (1) use random or quasi‐random (e.g., alternation) assignment to allocate participants to conditions; (2) include only juvenile delinquents ages 17 and younger who have not yet been “officially adjudicated” for their current offense; (3) assign such participants to juvenile system processing – or to an alternative non‐system condition; (4) include at least one quantifiable outcome measure of criminal behavior; and (5) be reported through July 2008 (without regard to language). SEARCH STRATEGY Fifteen experiments that met the eligibility criteria were identified from prior reviews conducted by the authors. To augment these 15 trials, we relied on electronic searches of 44 bibliographic databases, examined the citations in over 50 existing meta‐analyses and reviews to identify additional randomized studies, and contacted researchers outside the U.S. to identify non‐US. studies. These additional search strategies yielded 40 studies that required inspection of full‐text documents, resulting in an additional 14 experiments that met the eligibility criteria. Taken together with the existing 15 trials from our preceding reviews, these additional searches resulted in a final sample of 29 controlled trials. DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS A preliminary instrument was designed to extract data on substantive and methodological characteristics from each of the 29 trials. Standardized mean differences (Cohen's d) effect sizes were computed for the first, longest and strongest effects reported in each study for juvenile system processing, using Comprehensive Meta‐Analysis (version 2)1. Given the heterogeneity of the sample, analyses of effect sizes were reported assuming random effects models. Main effects were analyzed for each type of crime measure reported: prevalence, incidence, severity and self‐report. Five moderating analyses were also conducted. MAIN RESULTS The studies included 7,304 juveniles across 29 experiments reported over a 35‐year period. Juvenile system processing, at least given the experimental evidence presented in this report, does not appear to have a crime control effect. In fact, almost all of the results are negative in direction, as measured by prevalence, incidence, severity, and self‐report outcomes. The results are not uniform across every study; one important moderating variable is the type of control group. Studies that compared system processing to a diversion program reported much larger negative effect sizes than those that compared it to “doing nothing. AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS Based on the evidence presented in this report, juvenile system processing appears to not have a crime control effect, and across all measures appears to increase delinquency. This was true across measures of prevalence, incidence, severity, and self‐report. Given the additional financial costs associated with system processing (especially when compared to doing nothing) and the lack of evidence for any public safety benefit, jurisdictions should review their policies regarding the handling of juveniles.
Book
Crime and Everyday Life, Fourth Edition, provides an illuminating glimpse into roots of criminal behavior, explaining how crime can touch us all in both small and large ways. This innovative text shows how opportunity is a necessary condition for crime to occur, while exploring realistic ways to reduce or eliminate crime and criminal behavior by removing the opportunity to complete the act. Encouraging students to take a closer look at the true nature of crime and its effects on their lives, author Marcus Felson and new co-author Rachel L. Boba (an expert on crime prevention, crime analysis and mapping, and school safety) maintain the book's engaging, readable, and informative style, while incorporating the most current research on criminal behavior and routine activity theory. The authors emphasize that routine daily activities set the stage for illegal acts, thus challenging conventional wisdom and offering students a fresh perspective, novel solutions for reducing crime … and renewed hope. New and Proven Features Includes new coverage of gangs, bar problems, and barhopping; new discussion of the dynamic crime triangle; and expanded coverage of technology, Internet fraud, identity theft, and other Internet pitfalls; The now-famous “fallacies about crime” are reduced to nine and are organized and explained even more clearly than in past editions; Offers updated research on crime as well as new examples of practical application of theory, with the most current crime and victimization statistics throughout; Features POP (Problem-Oriented Policing) Center guidelines and citations, including Closing Streets and Alleys to Reduce Crime, Speeding in Residential Areas, Robbery of Convenience Stores, and use of the Situational Crime Prevention Evaluation Database; Updated “Projects and Challenges” at the end of each chapter Intended Audience This supplemental text adds a colorful perspective and enriches classroom discussion for courses in Criminological Theory, Introduction to Criminal Justice, and Introductory Criminology.
Article
Sentencing policy in the United States is guided by two general philosophies of punishment: a crime-control or instrumental philosophy, and a retributive philosophy. A crime-control philosophy is predicated on the expectation that punishing offenders is justified only because it produces some greater good-a reduction in crime that would not have occurred without punishment. Under this philosophy, the act of punishing a criminal offender involves practices by the state that involve harsh treatment or cruelty (deprivation of liberty, for example), which under normal conditions (that is, without good cause) would not be tolerated or permitted. This harsh treatment of a subject on the part of an authority can only be justified if the act of punishment is instrumental in reducing crime. Punishment, therefore, cannot be an end in itself and must serve another purpose. This other purpose is the prevention of crime. By the
Article
Since the crime explosion of the 1960s, the prison population in the United States has multiplied fivefold, to one prisoner for every hundred adults--a rate unprecedented in American history and unmatched anywhere in the world. Even as the prisoner head count continues to rise, crime has stopped falling, and poor people and minorities still bear the brunt of both crime and punishment. When Brute Force Fails explains how we got into the current trap and how we can get out of it: to cut both crime and the prison population in half within a decade. Mark Kleiman demonstrates that simply locking up more people for lengthier terms is no longer a workable crime-control strategy. But, says Kleiman, there has been a revolution--largely unnoticed by the press--in controlling crime by means other than brute-force incarceration: substituting swiftness and certainty of punishment for randomized severity, concentrating enforcement resources rather than dispersing them, communicating specific threats of punishment to specific offenders, and enforcing probation and parole conditions to make community corrections a genuine alternative to incarceration. As Kleiman shows, "zero tolerance" is nonsense: there are always more offenses than there is punishment capacity. But, it is possible--and essential--to create focused zero tolerance, by clearly specifying the rules and then delivering the promised sanctions every time the rules are broken. Brute-force crime control has been a costly mistake, both socially and financially. Now that we know how to do better, it would be immoral not to put that knowledge to work.
Article
"Get tough" control policies in the United States are often portrayed as the reflection of the public's will: Americans are punitive and want offenders locked up. Research from the past decade both reinforces and challenges this assessment. The public clearly accepts, if not prefers, a range of punitive policies (e. g., capital punishment, three-strikes-and-you're-out laws, imprisonment). But support for get-tough policies is "mushy." Thus citizens may be willing to substitute a sentence of life imprisonment without parole for the death penalty. Especially when nonviolent offenders are involved, there is substantial support for intermediate sanctions and for restorative justice. Despite three decades of criticism, rehabilitation-particularly for the young-remains an integral part of Americans' correctional philosophy. There is also widespread support for early intervention programs. In the end, the public shows a tendency to be punitive and progressive, wishing the correctional system to achieve the diverse missions of doing justice, protecting public safety, and reforming the wayward.
Book
What Works in Corrections, first published in 2006, examines the impact of correctional interventions, management policies, treatment and rehabilitation programs on the recidivism of offenders and delinquents. The book reviews different strategies for reducing recidivism and describes how the evidence for effectiveness is assessed. Thousands of studies were examined in order to identify those of sufficient scientific rigor to enable conclusions to be drawn about the impact of various interventions, policies and programs on recidivism. Systematic reviews and meta-analyses were performed to further examine these results. This book assesses the relative effectiveness of rehabilitation programs (e.g., education, life skills, employment, cognitive behavioral), treatment for different types of offenders (e.g. sex offenders, batterers, juveniles), management and treatment of drug-involved offenders (e.g., drug courts, therapeutic communities, outpatient drug treatment) and punishment, control and surveillance interventions (boot camps, intensive supervision, electronic monitoring). Through her extensive research, MacKenzie illustrates which of these programs are most effective and why. © Doris Layton MacKenzie 2006 and Cambridge University Press, 2009.