Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Tough Jails, Less Crime?

Do tough prisons reduce crime by acting as a deterrent?

Two studies draw contrary conclusions. Lawrence Katz, Steven Levitt and Ellen Shustorovich examined the death rate in American jails (excluding executions) as a proxy for harsh conditions. After looking at data in every state between 1950 and 1990, they estimated that each death in prison was associated with between 30 and 98 fewer violent crimes being committed. They concluded that tough conditions do deter potential criminals, though they cautioned that this did not necessarily mean they were desirable, since even criminals have rights.

Keith Chen of Yale and Jesse Shapiro of the University of Chicago approached the problem another way. They recently compared the experiences of prisoners who were nearly-but-not-quite bad enough to be put in a high-security jail with those only just bad enough to be in one. These two groups, they assumed, would be similar in temperament; but those in higher-security jails would endure a harsher regime and nastier cellmates.

By comparing recidivism rates for the two groups, Messrs Chen and Shapiro estimated whether tough conditions made bad men worse. They concluded that they did: similar prisoners held in higher security jails were 10-15 percentage points more likely to be re-arrested after being released. Since they estimated this effect to be larger than the deterrent effect identified by Mr Katz and co., they concluded that humane jails make for safer streets.
I am not a fan of tough jails for the following reason:
Alabama's current commissioner of prisons, Richard Allen, is also keen on rehabilitation. In April, noting that 95% of prisoners are eventually released, he announced a new programme to help them find a place to live, a job and help with staying off drugs.
If 95% of criminals are getting out, we better come up with a way to integrate them back into society or society will pay the cost in higher crime when they reoffend.

How can we pay for better jails? Well, how about letting some of them out?
Leniency is unpopular, however, even though non-violent drug offenders make up between a fifth and a quarter of prisoners, and many could be treated rather than jailed without endangering the public.
via The Economist


Steve Dock said...

As you say, 95% of the people who get into jail are released. Working to make these people fit back into society is key to minimizing repeat offenses. I heard on NPR that Ma is using GPS tracking devices on paroles. Interviews with parole officers and those wearing the devices both concluded that the device was a major deterrent from committing a future crime.


Fat Knowledge said...


Interesting point. I'm always a fan of using new technology to help us out.

Anonymous said...

There's a new film out about meditation in prisons called Dhamma Brothers. Its like the American remake of Doing Time, Doing Vipassana, substituting the Bible belt of the deep south for the notorious Indian prison of Tihar, and seems to represent a highly effective solution to recidivism.

Fat Knowledge said...


Interesting idea. I think that would definitely help, but I wonder what % of prisoners would sign up for it.

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