Early Releases, Crime, and Evidence

In May, the California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation put into effect regulations that greatly increased the credits that violent criminals can earn to shorten their sentences. Sam Stanton of the Sacramento Bee has this article on a lawsuit by 45 district attorneys (out of 58 in the state) to invalidate these regulations.

I will have more to say about this suit later, but right now I want to focus on a statement by a supporter of the regulations that illustrates the kind of pseudoscientific posturing that is rampant in policy debates today.

Don Specter of the Prison Law Office, a long-time soft-on-crime advocate, said “there’s no evidence that releasing people early creates more crime.” There are two big problems with that statement. First, there is plenty of evidence from which a causal upward effect on crime rates can be inferred. Second, absence of evidence is not, without more, evidence of absence.

Note that Specter did not say “there is solid evidence that releasing people early does not create more crime.” We could then demand to see the evidence, and if any is produced show that it is not substantial. We did exactly that with LA DA George Gascón’s statement that studies show that longer sentences increase recidivism. See this post. Specter is more clever in merely asserting a lack of evidence and expecting (correctly) that many people will incorrectly infer that the opposite must be true.

A statement that “there are no studies showing X” means nothing if there are no studies that looked for X. In today’s academic environment, it would be career suicide to undertake a study that one expected would produce a Politically Incorrect result. For example, academics who have studied police use of force for racial bias and not found any have suffered the present-day equivalent of tarring and feathering by the mob.

Common sense and abundant anecdotal evidence tell us that releasing criminals early will increase crime, so if there is no study on point (and I haven’t done a literature search) it is likely that no one wants to be the next target of the mob.

Even if a study precisely on point is lacking, though, it is wrong to say there is no evidence of X if there is evidence from which X may be fairly inferred.

There is abundant evidence that most people released from prison return to crime. In this post, I discussed a BJS study that followed released prisoners for nine years, an unusually long follow-up period as these studies go. An appalling 83.4% of releasees were arrested for at least one new crime. The average was five arrests.

Given the low clearance rate, if the average releasee was arrested for five crimes, the average committed is likely in the 15-20 range.

So we have strong evidence that the typical releasee returns to crime and repeatedly commits crimes. The earlier he is released, obviously, the sooner he can return to victimizing innocent people. For the career criminal, the number of crimes he commits over a lifetime will depend to a large extent on the fraction of that lifetime that he spends out of prison.

For violent crimes in particular, there is abundant evidence that one “treatment” that works is age. Take a group of violent young men and follow up on them decades later, and you will find that as a group they are committing substantially less violent crime as they sprout gray hair. If a person has already committed a string of violent crimes by the time he is 20, there is a strong empirical basis for believing that holding him in prison until he is 40 will save more people from victimization than releasing him when he is 30.

But Don Specter says there is no evidence that early releases increase crime. Sure there is. You only have to look a little below the surface and use a little logic.