Recidivism and time served in prison.

Author:Mears, Daniel P.

TABLE OF CONTENTS INTRODUCTION I. BACKGROUND A. Get-Tough Crime Policy and the Era of Mass Incarceration B. The Effect of Incarceration on Recidivism C. The Effect of Time Served on Recidivism II. HYPOTHESES H1. Time Served Decreases Recidivism H2. Time Served Increases Recidivism H3. Time Served Has a U-Shaped Association with Recidivism H4. Time Served Has No Effect on Recidivism III. DATA AND METHODS IV. FINDINGS CONCLUSION INTRODUCTION

In recent decades, the United States embarked on a seemingly straightforward approach to reducing recidivism among convicted felons: incarcerating more offenders and ensuring that they serve more time. (1) The logic in part has been that additional time in prison exacts greater retribution and creates appreciable incapacitation and deterrent effects. (2) The logic in part, too, has been that prison has a specific deterrent effect that reduces recidivism. Scholars, however, have highlighted that the logic by which prison does, or does not, reduce recidivism may be more complicated. On theoretical grounds, for example, it remains unclear exactly how specific deterrent effects of prison may unfold over varying periods of incarceration. (3) The pains or strains of imprisonment, (4) which could contribute to deterrent effects, may be more concentrated in or felt more acutely during early stages than later stages of incarceration. (5) At the same time, varying durations of incarceration may exert different effects on social bonds, social capital, and labeling processes, (6) and in turn, recidivism. (7) Similarly, as Clemmer long ago emphasized in 1958, lengthier stays in prison may allow for greater acclimation to prison culture and so a greater likelihood of offending after release to society. (8)

Alongside these and other possibilities is the concern that time served may have little appreciable effect on recidivism. Indeed, reviews and studies consistently suggest that, while mixed effects of time served in prison have been identified, overall the duration of incarceration likely exerts minimal influence on post-release offending. (9) Few studies, however, have systematically examined prison durations of more than one or two years or investigated the functional form of the recidivism and time served relationship (i.e., whether the relationship is linear or curvilinear, and if the latter, what is the precise nature of the curvilinearity). (10) In addition, studies of time served effects have been critiqued for employing weak methodological designs that undermine the estimates. (11) Some of the problems include the use of small samples, limited to no inclusion of control variables to address potential confounding, attention only to the first year or two of incarceration, and estimation that allows only for identification of linear effects. (12) These problems compound one another. (13) For example, a study that examines short prison stays cannot easily capture curvilinear functional forms that unfold when individuals experience longer prison stays, and cannot do so at all if such possibilities are not investigated. (14) Similarly, limited sample sizes make it difficult to investigate functional form and simultaneously address confounding. (15)

Against this backdrop, this study seeks to inform scholarship on punishment and, in particular, efforts to assess the effect of time served on recidivism. Specifically, it investigates whether the relationship between time served and offending may be curvilinear (i.e., whether the magnitude of effect of time served on offending varies depending on the amount of time served). To this end, the paper first situates the study's relevance in the context of mass incarceration. Second, it discusses prior scholarship on incarceration effects and time served effects on future offending. Third, drawing on prior theory and research, we identify three sets of hypothesized relationships between time served and recidivism. Fourth, we describe the data, which include information about 90,423 inmates who served varying lengths of time in Florida prisons, and the analyses, which rely on generalized propensity score modeling to address confounding and to estimate the functional form of the time served and recidivism relationship. Results of the analyses reveal a curvilinear relationship: greater time served initially increases recidivism but then, after approximately one year, decreases it, and, after approximately two years, exerts no effect; estimation of the effects associated with prison durations of more than five years are uncertain. (16) The results assist in clarifying why some prior studies have reported mixed findings, including positive effects, negative effects, and null effects of time served on offending. (17) They also underscore the need for greater attention to specifying and assessing the theoretical and empirical conditions under which incarceration and varying prison durations affect recidivism. (18)



      The last several decades have been witness to a historically unprecedented policy shift that emphasized tougher, more punitive sanctioning of offenders, including greater use of incarceration and other types of correctional system punishments. (19) State prison populations, for example, increased by over 700% from 1972 to 2011, as did time served in prison; inmates released in 2009 on average served nine more months in prison than did their counterparts in 1990. (20) Many factors led to this growth, including efforts to impose greater retribution for offending and to create incapacitation and general deterrent effects that would lower crime. (21) An additional factor was the belief that more time in prison would or could reduce recidivism and that the benefits of increased incarceration--whether through achieving such goals as greater retribution or reduced crime--would outweigh social or economic costs. (22) Other goals, such as the control of "dangerous classes" in American society, have been identified as well. (23) Even so, retribution and public safety constitute the avowed goals expressed by legislatures. (24)

      To date, the effects of the era of get-tough policy and of mass incarceration in particular, remain disputed. (25) Scholars have emphasized that the greater reliance on incarceration can create a number of social harms. (26) For example, prison stays may adversely affect ties to family and friends, mental and physical health, employment prospects, and the ability to access public housing. (27) Scholars have also emphasized, the uncertainty that exists about the precise effects of incarceration on crime rates, whether through general deterrence, incapacitation, or other mechanisms. (28) Not least, questions exist as well about whether incarceration reduces recidivism. (29) For example, despite marked increases in incarceration in recent decades, there is no evidence that recidivism rates have improved. (30) Recently, for instance, a Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) national assessment of recidivism rates among prisoners released from thirty states in 2005 found that, within five years of release, 77% of prisoners were rearrested for a felony or serious misdemeanor, 55% were reconvicted of a new crime, and 28% were sent to prison for a new crime. (31) The three-year levels of recidivism were nearly identical to those reported from a previous BJS assessment undertaken in 2002. (32)


      The theoretical foundation for anticipating that prison reduces recidivism rests on different lines of reasoning. One is that individuals commit crime due to individual failings that can be remedied through rehabilitation. (33) This perspective rests implicitly on a range of criminological theories of offending, such as general strain theory and social learning theory. (34) Through various programs and interventions, rehabilitation seeks to change an individual in ways that decrease known or assumed causes of offending or that increase an individual's ability to inhibit their effect. (35)

      A different explanation is that something about the experience of incarceration produces a specific deterrent effect. (36) From a rational choice theoretical perspective, for example, it produces actual or perceived costs that offset potential crime benefits. (37) The costs (e.g., loss of liberty, severed social ties, foregone employment income, stigma) and benefits (e.g., money, getting "high," prestige) may vary, but the calculus--an assessment of costs relative to benefits--remains the same. (38) Under a deterrence model, the certainty, celerity, and severity of punishment are assumed to be related to punishment costs. (39) Prison presumptively is assumed to constitute a severe punishment, even though the perceived severity of other sanctions may be greater for some individuals. (40) However, severity does not necessarily deter. For example, the costs associated with incarceration, such as reduced employability and access to public housing, may decrease the benefits of non-offending to make recidivism upon release the more rational option. (41) Perceptions about other aspects of incarceration, such as the experience of incarceration, prison conditions, or the extent to which actual time served in prison accords with sentence length may affect deterrence and thus offending. (42)

      Despite the substantial growth in incarceration and in scholarship on deterrence and rehabilitation in recent decades, "rigorous scientific knowledge [on the effect of imprisonment on reoffending] is in short supply." (43) Indeed, the problem is two-fold. First, reviews of research have identified a mixed body of findings, with some finding beneficial effects, others finding harmful effects, and still others finding no effects on recidivism. (44) Nagin's review and recent studies lend support to the view that prison exerts a criminogenic effect. (45) Even so, the...

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