The aim of this research is to provide scientifically sound evidence on the effect of the experience of imprisonment compared to a noncustodial sanction on reoffending. Review of the empirical literature on imprisonment effects on reoffending indicates that, on balance, the evidence points to a criminogenic rather than a preventive effect. However, such a review also indicates that the evidentiary base for this conclusion is weak.

The most important statistical weakness of much of the existing research is its vulnerability to "selection bias." That is, even with extensive statistical controls for measured case and person characteristics, persons sent to prison may remain systematically different from those convicted but not imprisoned on unmeasured characteristics related to recidivism. To overcome the selection problem we propose to capitalize on the random assignment of cases to judges in the criminal courts of Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. Because of random assignment, there will be no systematic difference in case characteristics across judges. Cross-judge variation in their likelihood of imposing a prison sentence will be used as the basis for inferring the effect of incarceration on reoffending.

Imprisonment is a sanction that is financially costly, exacts an economic and psychological toll on family members of the incarcerated, particularly children, and raises issues of social justice due to its differential impact on minority members and communities. Thus, beyond being an instrument for meting out just desserts, prison's justification must rest heavily on its demonstrated utility to protect the social order. Understanding the effects of incarceration on reoffending should thus be a key consideration in formulating correctional policy.

Project Report

Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE The two major activities undertaken with this grant involved conducting analyses designed to measure the effect on criminal recidivism of receiving a criminal sentence involving incarceration and developing the implications of the findings for criminal sentencing and criminal justice policy. Analyses of the effect of incarceration on recidivism rates addressed two distinct issues. One was measuring the effect on recidivism of receiving a sentence involving incarceration in a county jail or state prison compared to a non-custodial sentence, for example probation. The second was measuring the "dose-response" relationship between recidivism and sentence length among those who were incarcerated. Specifically, this involved relating the recidivism rate to the period of incarceration. The examination of the policy implications of the findings was done in the context of essays on what is known about the crime prevention effect of imprisonment. Criminologists refer to one such effect as specific deterrence. Specific deterrence refers to the effect of the experience of punishment on recidivism. This effect was the subject of the empirical analyses under this grant. Another effect is called general deterrence which refers to the crime prevention effect of the threat of punishment. The third effect is incapacitation which refers to the crime prevention effect of the physical isolation in prison or jail of convicted offenders. The analyses of the effect of receiving a sentence involving incarceration versus not receiving such a sentence found no evidence of a specific deterrent effect. Instead recidivism seemed to be unaffected by the experience of incarceration. Likewise recidivism seemed unaffected by the length of incarceration. My review of the literature on the general deterrent effect of lengthy sentences also identified no evidence of a material deterrent effect. Collectively, these conclusions call into question the effectiveness and efficiency of lengthy prison sentences as a policy for preventing crime.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
Standard Grant (Standard)
Application #
Program Officer
susan sterett
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
Carnegie-Mellon University
United States
Zip Code