Why Take it Easy on Prisoners?

Published: February 29, 2008

Tough on Crime
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Can a prison be too rough on inmates? Yes, if the goal is to reduce recidivism, according to Jesse Shapiro, assistant professor of economics. Shapiro and coauthor M. Keith Chen examined two sets of prisoners based on the federal inmate classification system—those whose crimes just barely merited high-security prison, and those whose offenses missed the cutoff and landed them in a minimum-security facility. “By comparing inmates on either side of the boundaries between different security levels, we estimate the effect on recidivism of being assigned to a higher security level,” the study said.

But Shapiro and Chen concluded that harsher confinement conditions did nothing to reduce recidivism, the Economist reported last summer. “Similar prisoners held in higher-security jails were 10 to 15 percentage points more likely to be rearrested after being released,” the article said. The researchers wrote, “If anything, our estimates suggest that moving an inmate over a cutoff that increases his assigned security level from minimum to above-minimum security tends to increase his likelihood of rearrest following release.”

The work runs slightly contrary to earlier findings by researchers including Steven Levitt, Alvin H. Baum Professor in Economics and the College, the Economist pointed out. With coauthors Lawrence Katz and Ellen Shustorovich, he looked at prison death rates (excluding executions) between 1950 and 1990 as the “best available proxy for prison conditions” and noted that each death was linked to between 30 and 98 fewer violent crimes committed. “They concluded that tough conditions do deter potential criminals, though they cautioned that this did not necessarily mean they were desirable, since even criminals have rights,” the Economist wrote.

But Shapiro and Chen reported, “We study how theconditions of incarceration influence postrelease criminal behavior. Our finding is that harsher imprisonment conditions do not reduce recidivism.” Their study “Do Harsher Prison Conditions Reduce Recidivism? A Discontinuity-based Approach” was published in the American Law and Economics Review.—P.H.

Last Updated 5/14/09