Harsh Prison Conditions Do Not Reduce Recidivism

Apropos of yesterday’s Supreme Court decision, Yale’s Keith Chen and Jesse Shapiro find (gated , ungated version) that harsh prison conditions have no deterrent effect. Au contraire:

We estimate the causal effect of prison conditions on recidivism rates by exploiting a discontinuity in the assignment of federal prisoners to security levels. Inmates housed in higher security levels are no less likely to recidivate than those housed in minimum security; if anything, our estimates suggest that harsher prison conditions lead to more post-release crime. Though small sample sizes limit the precision of our estimates, we argue that our findings may have important implications for prison policy, and that our methodology is likely to be applicable beyond the particular context we study

A similar study from Italy that looks explicitly at overcrowding is here. There is an earlier paper by Lawrence Katz, Steven Levitt, and Ellen Shusterovich that has the opposite finding but it relies on death rates in prison as a proxy for conditions and does not have a credible identification strategy. Much of this work is plagued by difficulties identifying causal effects. The Chen and Shapiro study stands out in that regard.

Recidivism is but one of many factors to consider but it featured in the Court’s opinion. The majority quoted governor Schwarzenegger:

“‘overcrowding causes harm to people and property, leads to inmate unrest and mis-conduct, . . . and increases recidivism as shown within this state and in others.’

In his dissent, Scalia criticized the District Court’s for relying “largely on their own beliefs about penology and recidivism.” There must be more relevant social science out there. Feel free to link to it in the comments.

2 Responses to Harsh Prison Conditions Do Not Reduce Recidivism

  1. Nick Cowen May 24, 2011 at 9:42 am #

    These two studies are measuring slightly different things, the Levitt et al. is measuring crime rates in a given state, while Shapiro et al. is measuring individual recidivism. The results are not necessarily contradictory – harsh prison conditions might have a general deterrent effect on a potentially offending population while having a criminogenic effect on those actually suffering those conditions. There is a parallel to this in some of literature on length of sentence:

    “The results imply that there is a trade-off between the crime prevention effect of incapacitation and general deterrent and the increase in crime that arises from the criminogenic effect of the experience of imprisonment of those actually imprisoned.”


    Hardly a ringing endorsement of tough jails (even if true), but it does imply there are a number of competing effects at work.

  2. j May 24, 2011 at 10:23 am #

    Erik, here is a link to the final version of the gated Chen paper! Enjoy