In response to increasing concerns about jail and prison overcrowding, many officials across the U.S. have undertaken different efforts aimed at reducing the prison population, including Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón. In December 2020, Gascón introduced a policy to eliminate all prison sentence enhancements, thereby sharply reducing sentence lengths for offenders committing crimes with aggravating factors such as causing great bodily injury or use of a deadly weapon. In Special Directive 20-08, the new DA claimed that research and data show that longer sentence lengths are more likely to increase recidivism relative to shorter sentences.
While the directive cites one unpublished study in support of the finding, it is unclear whether this finding holds when considering the wider body of research on the topic. Namely, research findings can vary quite a bit across studies, so we argue that a critical examination of the research literature is warranted. When considering the research on the relationship between incarceration and recidivism, many studies compare custodial with non-custodial sentences, and fewer examine the impact of varying incarceration lengths on recidivism. Considering that everyone subject to a possible sentence enhancement will be serving some type of custodial sentence, the latter is more relevant concerning Gascón’s recent policy change. To assess the claims mentioned in Special Directive 20-08, my colleague Kent Scheidegger and I conducted a detailed review of the research on this topic.
UPDATE: The full-length version of this paper has been posted through the Social Science Research Network.