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September 13, 2011

"Prisons Do Not Reduce Recidivism: The High Cost of Ignoring Science"

The title of this post is the title of this article by Francis Cullen, Cheryl Lero Jonson and Daniel Nagin appearing in the September 2011 issue of The Prison Journal. Here is the 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.

September 13, 2011 at 08:55 AM | Permalink


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Take a miracle drug, insulin, for a chronic condition, diabetes. Give it, the patient does well. Stop it, the patient deteriorates and dies. The recidivism rate for the stopping of insulin is 100%.

Why is the expectation any higher for a legal remedy, prison, for a chronic, permanent, inherited condition, antisocial personality disorder?

Why is the lawyer so stupid as to be unable to understand that idea? The lawyer is not stupid. The lawyer wants to grow government with a massive social welfare industry to mitigate the catastrophic consequences of loosing the repeat offender on the neighborhoods of dark skinned people.

Why does Prof. Berman only post lawyer propaganda for rent seeking and bigger government? Why won't he post material advocating the elimination of criminality? He is a victim of indoctrination by a criminal cult enterprise. Only the interest of the lawyer hierarchy get space. These are not even the interests of the regular lawyer or judge.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 13, 2011 9:12:08 AM

Surely recidivism reduction is desirable, but at least inmates are prevented from harming people whilst inside.

[Speedy executions clearly manage recidivism quite well (rapists, murderers in days of old)].

Posted by: adamakis | Sep 13, 2011 9:47:24 AM

adamakis --


Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 13, 2011 9:54:31 AM

Supremacy Claus is kind of stealing the argument here in assuming that every prisoner has "antisocial personality disorder". That is proposition with absolutely no evidence, and we are dangerously close to saying that everybody who is an "Enemy of the State/Enemy of the People" suffers from a disease.

Posted by: Steven Druckenmiller | Sep 13, 2011 10:42:50 AM

"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.'"

Really? The authors provide no citation to justify this statement. James Q. Wilson's "Thinking About Crime" was quite expressly based on incapacitation and *not* on specific deterrence.

Looks like the straw man fallacy at work once again.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Sep 13, 2011 11:24:04 AM

There must be some merit to the arguments in the article, since all the tuff-on-crime types here seem so quick to dismiss it without discussion of the merits. (At least Kent appears to have opened the file and skimmed the introduction, if only to ignore all its caveats.) I really liked the hospital analogy, which works on many levels.

As a practical matter, certainly incapacitation reduces crime by some amount, no doubt, but if incarceration of low-risk offenders increases recidivism, depending on how much, the benefits from incapacitation may be reduced or even wiped out. The issue is most complex for low-level offenders who receive short incarceration sentences and are back out on the street relatively soon in any event. A recent report from a British think tank found that "non-custodial sentences are up to 9% more effective at preventing reoffending than short prison terms." From a retributivist perspective, arguably strong probation can be "tougher" than community supervision in many instances. In TX for substance-abuse related offenses including DWI it's become common for offenders to choose jail because it's easier than successfully completing a probation term. So many defendants voting with their feet already realize probation can be tougher for low-level offenses than incarceration. Now we just need those managing the system to realize it as well and adjust sentencing practices accordingly.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Sep 13, 2011 11:47:31 AM

Whoops, strong probation can be tougher than incarceration, not "community supervision." My bad.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Sep 13, 2011 12:20:35 PM

A full discussion of the merits would take more time than I have to devote to the issue right now, so I choose to point out the whopper of a false assumption that is apparent right up front. No other inference is validly drawn from that choice.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Sep 13, 2011 1:38:24 PM

Steven: If they do not have ASPD, they have even more serious mental problems, and are even more dangerous if ever released.

From the Lancet, a Brit med journal.

Lancet. 2002 Feb 16;359(9306):545-50.
Serious mental disorder in 23000 prisoners: a systematic review of 62 surveys.
Fazel S, Danesh J.

Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford, Warneford Hospital, OX3 7JX, Oxford, UK.

About 9 million people are imprisoned worldwide, but the number with serious mental disorders (psychosis, major depression, and antisocial personality disorder) is unknown. We did a systematic review of surveys on such disorders in general prison populations in western countries.

We searched for psychiatric surveys that were based on interviews of unselected prison populations and included diagnoses of psychotic illnesses or major depression within the previous 6 months, or a history of any personality disorder. We did computer-assisted searches, scanned reference lists, searched journals, and corresponded with authors. We determined prevalence rates of serious mental disorders, sex, type of prisoner (detainee or sentenced inmate), and other characteristics.

62 surveys from 12 countries included 22790 prisoners (mean age 29 years, 18530 [81%] men, 2568 [26%] of 9776 were violent offenders). 3.7% of men (95% CI 3.3--4.1) had psychotic illnesses, 10% (9--11) major depression, and 65% (61--68) a personality disorder, including 47% (46--48) with antisocial personality disorder. 4.0% of women (3.2--5.1) had psychotic illnesses, 12% (11--14) major depression, and 42% (38--45) a personality disorder, including 21% (19--23) with antisocial personality disorder. Although there was substantial heterogeneity among studies (especially for antisocial personality disorder), only a small proportion was explained by differences in prevalence rates between detainees and sentenced inmates. Prisoners were several times more likely to have psychosis and major depression, and about ten times more likely to have antisocial personality disorder, than the general population.

Worldwide, several million prisoners probably have serious mental disorders, but how well prison services are addressing these problems is not known.
Comment in

Lancet. 2002 Aug 17;360(9332):572-3; author reply 573.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 14, 2011 2:10:45 AM

The failure of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) should be a lesson to all correctional systems worldwide. In California, our current system perpetuates prison gangs and violence through a mix of conservative fear tactics regarding crime and liberal socialism that has entrenched unionism in the public sector. If both Republicans and Democrats realized they were fueling the same system and injustices they would be surprised by their bipartisanship on this issue. The California Corrections Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) is the largest and most powerful special interest group in California, and resorts to conservative "tuff on crime" tactics to build more prisons and push "tuff on crime" legislation. And as the prison guard population grows, liberal actions in propping up unions in the public sector (a place where in my opinion, unions are dangerous because there is no vested interest in protecting the people's interest or society's well-being)and conservative "tuff-on-crime" perspectives continue to further a policing state, making crime pay. Using both Republican and Democrat agendas, the CDCR has managed to take the rehabilative aspect out of the prison system (making society less safe), increase prison population through legislation and an inept Parole Board (incurring huge costs to California taxpayers), and corrupted our legislative process (injecting large contributions into political campaigns and altering what is best for society to benefit them). Indeed, as union membership grows, more prisons are built, gang violence worsens, inmates become more violent than when they entered the system, and economic costs have increased to the point where California's budget for Corrections exceeds the of K-12 public education and higher education combined. So, yes, recividism increases as offenders are indoctrinated in the school of crime -- prisons. The truth is that the CDCR and CCPOA are an organism that, like any other business, has as its goal continued capital growth and business expansion, or increased recividism, and not rehabilitation.

Posted by: American Apologism | Sep 14, 2011 1:15:41 PM

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