Despite the dramatic expansion of the US correctional system in recent decades, little is known about the relative effectiveness of commonly used sanctions on recidivism. The goal of this paper is to address this research gap, and systematically examine the relative impacts on recidivism of four main types of sanctions: probation, intensive probation, jail, and prison.
Data on convicted felons in Florida were analyzed and propensity score matching analyses were used to estimate relative effects of each sanction type on 3-year reconviction rates.
Estimated effects suggest that less severe sanctions are more likely to reduce recidivism.
The findings raise questions about the effectiveness of tougher sanctioning policies for reducing future criminal behavior. Implications for future research, theory, and policy are also discussed.
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There is debate about what constitutes more severe punishment. Some scholarship, for example, suggests that offenders may perceive supervision-based sanctions as more severe than prison (Crouch 1993; Petersilia and Deschenes 1994; Deschenes et al. 1995; Spelman 1995; Petersilia 1997; May et al. 2005). In general, extant theory and research does not provide a clear answer (see, e.g., Paternoster 1987; Nagin 1998; Pratt et al. 2006). Here, we recognize that although incarceration typically is viewed as a tougher sanction, offenders’ perceptions of severity may vary depending on the conditions of incarceration and supervision.
In Florida, intensive probation is officially termed “community control.” It typically includes house arrest, curfew, and contact restrictions greater than that of traditional probation.
Ancillary analyses using replacement, 1-to-many matching, and various caliper specifications revealed substantively similar findings. These results are available upon request.
Many inmates serve approximately a year in prison. For example, for Florida inmates released during the years covered in this study, approximately 15–30 % of released inmates in a given year served a year or less (see Table 4c, Time Served in DC Custody, Florida Department of Corrections Inmate Release reports—http://www.dc.state.fl.us/pub/index.html). To illustrate, in 1994, over 28 % of inmates served one year or less, and in 2002 almost 17 % did so. Nationally, the same pattern holds; for example, the median time served among state prison inmates released in 2008 was 16 months (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2011).
These analyses differ from those that appear in an earlier study by Mears et al. (2012), which assessed prison effects on recidivism, in several ways. There is no focus here on gender differences in the effects of incarceration; we examine two groups of incarcerated prison inmates; we focus on the relative effects of four types of sanctions to each other and not solely prison versus other sanctions; and we make no arguments here about varying differences that the types of sanctions may exert on types of recidivism. Ancillary analyses using the full samples (and thus 1-to-many matching analyses) and other treatment group sample sizes identified results that were substantively and statistically similar; these analyses are available upon request. Use of the sub-samples enables us to obtain estimates based on a more rigorous matching approach (e.g., 1-to-1 matching and narrow caliper settings).
For all 14 models, the variables that typically predict sentences were statistically significant in the expected directions. Because each model had a slightly different specification, there is no parsimonious way to present the full set of regression results. They are available upon request.
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We thank Peter Austin, Sam Field, and Brian Stults for their helpful comments and suggestions during the development of this paper. We also thank the Florida Department of Corrections for permission to use their data. The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not reflect those of the Department of Corrections.
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Cochran, J.C., Mears, D.P. & Bales, W.D. Assessing the Effectiveness of Correctional Sanctions. J Quant Criminol 30, 317–347 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10940-013-9205-2