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«This PDF is available from The National Academies Press at The Growth of Incarceration in the United ...»

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One challenge for research on sentence enhancements is that because entire jurisdictions are affected by a sentencing reform, the “treated” defendants are necessarily compared with those in other times or places who are likely to differ in unmeasured ways. Six recent studies present particularly convincing evidence on the deterrent effect of incarceration by constructing credible comparisons of treatment and control groups, and they also nicely illustrate heterogeneity in the deterrence response to the threat of imprisonment. Weisburd and colleagues (2008) and Hawken and Kleiman (2009) studied the use of imprisonment to enforce payment of fines and conditions of probation, respectively, and found substantial deterrent effects. Helland and Tabarrok (2007) analyzed the deterrent effect of California’s thirdstrike provision and found only a modest deterrent effect. Ludwig and Raphael (2003) examined the deterrent effect of prison sentence enhancements for gun crimes and found no effect. Finally, Lee and McCrary (2009) and Hjalmarsson (2009) examined the heightened threat of imprisonment that attends coming under the jurisdiction of the adult courts at the age of majority and found no deterrent effect. These studies are described further below.

Weisburd and colleagues (2008) present findings of a randomized field trial of different approaches to encouraging payment of court-ordered fines. Their most salient finding involves the “miracle of the cells”—that the imminent threat of incarceration provides a powerful incentive to pay delinquent fines, even when the incarceration is only for a short period. This finding supports the notion, discussed earlier, that the certainty rather the severity of punishment is the more powerful deterrent. It is true that in this study, there was a high certainty of imprisonment for failing to pay the fine among the treatment group. Nonetheless, the term used by Weisburd and colleagues—the “miracle of the cells” and not the “miracle of certainty”— emphasizes that certainty is a deterrent only if the punishment is perceived as costly enough.

This point is further illustrated by Project HOPE (Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement). In this randomized experiment, the treatment group of probationers underwent regular drug testing (including random testing). The punishment for a positive test or other violation of conditions of probation was certain but brief (1-2 days) confinement. The intervention group had far fewer positive tests and missed appointments and significantly lower rates of arrest and imprisonment (Kleinman, 2009;

Hawken and Kleiman, 2009; Hawken, 2010).8 8 The success of Project HOPE has brought it considerable attention in the media and in policy circles. Its strong evaluation design—a randomized experiment—puts its findings on a sound scientific footing and is among the reasons why its results are highlighted in this report. Still, there are several reasons for caution in assessing the significance of the results.

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The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

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Helland and Tabarrok (2007) examine the deterrent effect of California’s “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law among those convicted of strikeable offenses. They compare the future offending of those convicted of two previous strikeable offenses and those convicted of one strikeable offense who also had been tried for a second strikeable offense but were convicted of a nonstrikeable offense. The two groups had a number of common characteristics, such as age, race, and time spent in prison. The authors find an approximately 20 percent lower arrest rate among those convicted of two strikeable offenses and attribute this to the much more severe sentence that would have been imposed for a third strikeable offense.

Ludwig and Raphael (2003) examine the deterrent effect of sentence enhancements for gun crimes that formed the basis for a much-publicized federal intervention called Project Exile in Richmond, Virginia. Perpetrators of gun crimes, especially those with a felony record, were the targets of federal prosecution, which provided for far more severe sanctions for weapon use than those imposed by Virginia state law. The authors conducted a careful and thorough analysis involving comparison of adult and juvenile homicide arrest rates in Richmond and comparison of the gun homicide rates of Richmond and other cities with comparable preintervention homicide rates. They conclude that the threat of enhanced sentences had no apparent deterrent effect.

The shift in jurisdiction from juvenile to adult court that occurs when individuals reach the age of majority is accompanied by increased certainty and severity of punishment for most crimes. Lee and McCrary (2009) conducted a meticulous analysis of individual-level crime histories in Florida to see whether felony offending declined sharply at age 18—the age of majority in that state. They report an immediate decline in crime, as predicted, but it was very small and not statistically significant.9 As of this writing, the results have yet to be replicated outside of rural Hawaii. This is also a complex intervention, and the mechanisms by which compliance with conditions of probation is achieved are not certain. Specifically, a competing interpretation to deterrence for the observed effects is that probationers were responding to an authoritative figure. Nevertheless, the interpretation that certain but nondraconian punishment can be an effective deterrent is consistent with decades of research on deterrence (Nagin, 1998, 2013b). That such an effect appears to have been found in a population in which deterrence has previously been ineffective in averting crime makes the finding potentially very important. Thus, as discussed later in this chapter, research on the deterrent effectiveness of short sentences with high celerity and certainty should be a priority, particularly among crime-prone populations.

9 The finding that the young fail to respond to changes in penalties associated with the age of majority is not uniform across studies. An earlier analysis by Levitt (1998) finds a large drop in the offending of young adults when they reach the age of jurisdiction for adult courts.

For several reasons, Durlauf and Nagin (2011a, 2011b) judge the null effect finding of Lee and McCrary to be more persuasive in terms of understanding deterrence. First, Levitt (1998) focuses on differences in age measured at annual frequencies, whereas Lee and McCrary meaCopyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

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In another analysis of the effect, if any, of moving from the jurisdiction of juvenile to adult courts, Hjalmarsson (2009) uses the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth to examine whether young males’ perception of incarceration risk changed at the age of criminal majority. Youth were asked, “Suppose you were arrested for stealing a car, what is the percentage chance that you would serve time in jail?” The author found that subjective probabilities of being sent to jail increased discontinuously on average by 5.2 percentage points when youth reached the age of majority in their state of residence. While youth perceived an increase in incarceration risk, Hjalmarsson found no convincing evidence of an effect on their self-reported criminal behavior.

In combination, the above six studies demonstrate that debates about the deterrent effect of legal sanctions can be framed in terms argued by Beccaria and Bentham more than two centuries ago: Does the specific sanction deter or not, and if it does, are the crime reduction benefits sufficient to justify the costs of imposing the sanction? The Helland and Tabarrok (2007) study is an exemplar of this type of analysis. It concludes that California’s third-strike provision does indeed have a deterrent effect, a point conceded even by Zimring and colleagues (2001). However, Helland and Tabarrok (2007) also conclude, based on a cost-benefit analysis, that the crime-saving benefits are so small relative to the increased costs of incarceration that the lengthy prison sentences mandated by the third-strike provision cannot be justified on the basis of their effectiveness in preventing crime.

The above six studies suggest several important sources of the heterogeneity of the deterrent effect of imprisonment. One source relates to the length of the sentence. Figure 5-1 shows two different forms of the response function that relates crime rate and sentence length. A downward slope is seen for both, reflecting the deterrence effect of increased severity. Both curves have the same crime rate, C1, at the status quo sentence length, S1. Because the two curves are drawn to predict the same crime rate for a zero sanction level, the absolute deterrent effect of the status quo sanction level is the same for both.

But because the two curves have different shapes, they also imply different responses to an incremental increase in sentence length to S2. The linear curve (A) is meant to depict a response function in which there is a sizable deterrent effect accompanying the increase to S2, whereas the nonlinear curve (B) is sure age in days or weeks. At annual frequencies, the estimated effect is more likely to reflect both deterrence and incapacitation; hence Levitt’s results may be driven by incapacitation effects rather than deterrence per se. Second, the analysis by Lee and McCrary is based on individual-level data and therefore avoids the problems that can arise because of aggregation (Durlauf et al., 2008, 2010). The individual-level data studied by Lee and McCrary also are unusually informative on their own terms because they contain information on the exact age of arrestees, which allows for the calculation of very short-run effects of the discontinuity in sentence severity (e.g., effects within 30 days of turning 18).

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

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Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

–  –  –

The conclusion that increasing already long sentences has no material deterrent effect also has implications for mandatory minimum sentencing.

Mandatory minimum sentence statutes have two distinct properties. One is that they typically increase already long sentences, which we have concluded is not an effective deterrent. Second, by mandating incarceration, they also increase the certainty of imprisonment given conviction. Because, as discussed earlier, the certainty of conviction even following commission of a felony is typically small, the effect of mandatory minimum sentencing on certainty of punishment is greatly diminished. Furthermore, as discussed at length by Nagin (2013a, 2013b), all of the evidence on the deterrent effect of certainty of punishment pertains to the deterrent effect of the certainty of apprehension, not to the certainty of postarrest outcomes (including certainty of imprisonment given conviction). Thus, there is no evidence one way or the other on the deterrent effect of the second distinguishing characteristic of mandatory minimum sentencing (Nagin, 2013a, 2013b).


Crime prevention by incapacitation has an appealing directness—the incarceration of criminally active individuals will prevent crime through their physical separation from the rest of society. In contrast with crime prevention based on deterrence or rehabilitation, no assumptions about human behavior appear to be required to avert the social cost of crime.

Despite the apparent directness and simplicity of incapacitation, estimates of the size of its effects vary substantially. Most estimates are reported in terms of an elasticity—the percentage change in the crime rate in response to a 1 percent increase in the imprisonment rate. Spelman (1994) distinguishes between two types of incapacitation studies—simulation and econometric studies. Simulation studies are based on the model of Avi-Itzhak and Schinnar (1973), described below. The earliest simulationbased estimates are reported by Cohen (1978). Her elasticity estimates range from –0.05 to –0.70, meaning each 1 percent increase in imprisonment rates would result in a crime reduction of 0.05 to 0.7 percent.

Later estimates by DiIulio and Piehl (1991), Piehl and DiIulio (1995), and Spelman (1994) fall within a narrower but still large range of about –0.10 to –0.30—a 0.1 to 0.3 percent crime reduction for a 1 percent increase in imprisonment.

Econometric studies also examine the overall relationship between the crime rate and the imprisonment rate. These studies are discussed in greater detail in the next section. The range of elasticity estimates from these studies is similarly large—from no reduction in crime (Marvell and Moody, 1994; Useem and Piehl, 2008; Besci, 1999) to a reduction of about –0.4 or more (Levitt, 1996). These divergent findings are one of the key reasons the Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

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committee concludes that we cannot arrive at a precise estimate, or even a modest range of estimates, of the magnitude of the effect of incarceration on crime rates.

Many factors contribute to the large differences in estimates of the crimes averted by incapacitation. These factors include whether the data used to estimate crimes averted pertain to people in prison, people in jail, or nonincarcerated individuals with criminal histories; the geographic region from which the data are derived; the types of crimes included in the accounting of crimes averted; and a host of technical issues related to the measurement and modeling of key dimensions of the criminal career (National Research Council, 1986; Cohen, 1986; Visher, 1986; Piquero and Blumstein, 2007). Here we focus on two issues that are particularly important to estimating and interpreting incapacitation effects: the estimate of the rate of offending of active offenders and the constancy of that rate over the course of the criminal career.

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