Category: Prisons

Sentence Length and Recidivism: A Review of the Research

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While the directive cites one unpublished study in support of the finding, it is unclear whether this finding holds when considering the wider body of research on the topic.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.

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California to Release over 70,000 Inmates

The Associated Press has this story on the early release of thousands of inmates; “California is giving 76,000 inmates, including violent and repeat felons, the opportunity to leave prison earlier…” This is result of a promise made by Governor Newsom to decrease prison populations throughout the state of California and close prisons.  Thanks to Proposition 57 (adopted in 2016) state prison inmates, even those convicted of violent crimes, receive “good time” credits to reduce their sentences by up to 50%.  Last year approximately 21,000 inmates in California were released from prison. There will be a total of 3 prison closures in California by next year.

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Time Actually Served in Prison

“Everybody knows” that the reason that incarceration rates are so high in the United States is that we sentence people to far longer terms than their crimes warrant. As the old saying goes, it’s not what we don’t know that gets us in trouble; it’s what we know for a fact that just isn’t so.

On the left is a reasonable facsimile of Figure 1 from a new Bureau of Justice Statistics Report, Time Served in State Prison, 2018. It shows the median time actually served by state prisoners released in 2018, by their most serious offense. The ones serving long sentences are murderers and rapists, exactly the criminals whom persons of sense believe should be put away for a long time. Continue reading . . .

Qualified Immunity and Prison Conditions

The U.S. Supreme Court released two summary opinions today. One case involves a suit by a prisoner against corrections officers. A second is a suit by a police officer is against a protest organizer for violence by a protester. Both cases were sent back for further consideration. This post addresses the prison case. Continue reading . . .

Imprisonment Rate Down, But Why?

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics has released its annual report on prisoners for 2019. The “imprisonment rate,” defined as number of sentenced prisoners per 100,000 population, continued to decline, as it has since peaking in 2007.

While many people obsess about the imprisonment rate, I consider it to be a statistic of little value, at least by itself. Why is it down? Is it down because crime is down? Because legislatures lowered statutory penalties? Because prosecutors use their discretion not to charge every crime a defendant has committed more often? Because judges use their discretion in sentencing more leniently? Continue reading . . .

Go To Prison and Live Longer

The conventional wisdom is that a stint in prison is, between one thing and another, going to reduce your lifespan.  But scholarly inquiry shows this is not true.  The opposite is true.  See this entry on Sentencing Law and Policy, the body of which I repeat verbatim below.  The research is from Ohio, but I know of no reason to think Ohio is not fairly representative of the nation.

This paper analyzes the effect of incarceration on mortality using administrative data from Ohio between 1992 and 2017. Using event study and difference-in-differences approaches, we compare mortality risk across incarcerated and non-incarcerated individuals before and after pre-scheduled releases from prison. Mortality risk halves during the period of incarceration, with large declines in murders, overdoses, and medical causes of death. However, there is no detectable effect on post-release mortality risk, meaning that incarceration increases overall longevity. We estimate that incarceration averts nearly two thousand deaths annually in the US, comparable to the 2014 Medicaid expansion.

H/t to the estimable Doug Berman.


Guess What? The COVID Releases Are a Scam.

Here’s the headline from the piece in today’s WSJ by my friend Sean Kennedy, a Visiting Fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute:  You’re More Likely to Catch Covid at Home Than in Jail.  The sub-head is:  Early release policies have had no effect on transmission behind bars. But they have contributed to a crime wave.  I thought these two paragraphs were particularly revealing:

While hundreds of millions of law-abiding Americans were on lockdown this spring, progressives were demanding that criminals be allowed to go free. So far, almost 100,000 inmates have been released from prisons and jails around the country—with more to come. It can be no coincidence that crime is on the rise in states where these mass releases took place….

Some savvy jailbirds saw a golden opportunity to win their freedom. Inmates at North County Correctional Facility in Castaic, Calif., sought release by deliberately infecting themselves with the coronavirus. At least 21 of 50 prisoners who were caught on video drinking hot water from the same cup eventually tested positive for Covid-19. It isn’t clear whether they got their wish.

USCA9 Issues Split Decision in Sanctuary City Grant Case

Not surprisingly given its prior narrow interpretations, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit today affirmed the decision of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on the sanctuary city grant issue. That is, the federal government cannot deny federal law-enforcement grants for a state’s refusal to inform immigration authorities when they release a deportable alien from prison and related matters. However, the court vacated the nationwide aspect of the injunction, limiting it to California.

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Supreme Court Affirms That “Jailhouse Lawyer” Law Means Just What It Says

Today in Lomax v. Ortiz-Marquez, No. 18-8369, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided that a statute means exactly what it clearly says. One might well wonder why it is necessary to have the Supreme Court weigh in on such an obvious question, but two courts of appeals had decided it the other way. Justice Kagan’s opinion for the Court states the issue:

To help staunch a “flood of nonmeritorious” prisoner litigation, the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA) established what has become known as the three-strikes rule…. That rule generally prevents a prisoner from bringing suit in forma pauperis (IFP)—that is, without first paying the filing fee—if he has had three or more prior suits “dismissed on the grounds that [they were] frivolous, malicious, or fail[ed] to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.” … Today we address whether a suit dismissed for failure to state a claim counts as a strike when the dismissal was without prejudice.

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