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June 8, 2020

New Federal Defenders fact sheet highlights flaws in recent USSC report on incarceration lengths and recividism

This post from late April flagged this notable report by the US Sentencing Commission, titled "Length of Incarceration and Recidivism," which reported, inter alia, that the "Commission consistently found that incarceration lengths of more than 120 months had a deterrent effect."  The empiricism of this report was quickly questioned by two academics with empirical props, Jennifer Doleac and John Pfaff, and now the Sentencing Resource Counsel of the Federal Public and Community Defenders have produced this lengthy fact-sheet and this two-pager detailing problems with this USSC's report.

The nine-page "fact sheet" from the defenders is titled "Flawed U.S. Sentencing Commission Report Misstates Current Knowledge," and here is its initial "Summary":

In April 2020, the U. S. Sentencing Commission issued a report entitled “Length of Incarceration and Recidivism.”  In its report, the Commission claimed that “incarceration lengths of more than 120 months had a deterrent effect.” No effect was found for sentences 60 months or less, while sentences between 60 and 120 months yielded inconsistent results.

None of the findings in this report should be used by judges, legislators, or the Commission to make decisions of any kind.  The report badly misrepresents the research literature (Section I), uses a weak methodology for inferring causation (Section II), and fails properly to control for defendants’ criminal history (Section IV).  The report states its findings in a misleading form prone to misinterpretation and exaggeration (Section III).  The anomalous pattern of findings fits no theory of deterrence (Section VI), and no previous study has found the same pattern.  Further, it is unlikely the report’s findings would replicate or withstand tests for robustness, but because the Commission will not release data underlying the report, independent evaluation is impossible (Section IX). 

As a bipartisan agency, charged with being a “clearinghouse” for information on the effectiveness of sentencing practices, the Commission should issue accurate reports on the current state of knowledge regarding important policy questions. This report fails to meet that standard.

Prior related post:

June 8, 2020 at 10:44 AM | Permalink


Thank you for this post. Those responsible for making policy and passing legislation based on research need to know the process, design, method and selection of participants.

We spend hundreds of millions of dollars on research that is flawed and or directed to a specific outcome. Sometimes we need policy and legislation based on common decency.

Posted by: beth curtis | Jun 8, 2020 12:52:24 PM

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