Prison time for the sake of public safety? Not so fast

New findings challenge tough-on-crime measures, such as mandatory minimum sentences, and make the case for the greater use of prison diversion programs for people who are eligible for probation.

Locking away people who have committed assault, robbery, and similar felonies does not affect whether they will commit violent crimes after their release, according to the research, which appears in Nature Human Behaviour.

“Our study shows negligible public safety gains are made from imprisoning individuals who are eligible for probation, and that those gains last only as long as the individual is in prison,” says study lead author David Harding, a sociology professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

“We are spending a lot of money on imprisonment for very little benefit in terms of public safety.”

The researchers sought to understand whether prison sentences lower the likelihood of offenders committing future violent crimes once they get out.

They analyzed the post-release arrest and conviction records of more than 100,000 people in Michigan who were convicted between 2003 and 2006 and followed their interactions with the criminal justice system through 2015.

Their analysis focused on cases in which judges had the discretion to either sentence defendants to prison or to probation. It excluded individuals who had committed such extreme violent crimes as rape and murder and who are ineligible for probation.

In comparing the ex-inmates’ post-release arrest and conviction records against the probation cohort, researchers found that those who had been in prison were just as likely as their peers on probation to face conviction for violent crimes within five years of their release.

“The takeaway here is that imprisonment doesn’t make much of a dent in violent crime rates,” Harding says.

Opponents of criminal justice reforms commonly argue that reduced or diverted prison sentences compromise public safety. Meanwhile, laws to reduce recidivism, such as the federal First Step Act, enacted in December 2018, apply primarily to those convicted of non-violent crimes.

At least 1.5 million people are incarcerated in American federal and state correctional facilities at an annual cost of tens of billions of dollars to taxpayers. About half of prisoners have been convicted of a violent offense.

“We are spending a lot of money on imprisonment for very little benefit in terms of public safety,” says Harding.

“Our findings show we could incarcerate fewer people convicted of violent crimes and invest the savings in other ways of preventing violence in society.”

Additional coauthors of the study are from the University of Michigan, the Kaiser Permanente Colorado Institute for Health Research, the State University of New York at Albany, and the University of Colorado.

Source: UC Berkeley