A team of U.S. researchers says incarcerating those who commit serious crimes doesn’t stop them from doing so again after release.

Statue tied.

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When we were little, we could get sent to our rooms or put on a time-out for more serious misbehaving. I find a certain humorous irony that, as adults, we tend to apply the same ‘fix’ to those guilty of committing serious crimes. I understand the reasoning behind this line of thinking, but the parallel is, nevertheless, funny to me.

However, just like getting sent to your room didn’t really guarantee you wouldn’t misbehave later on, prison doesn’t deter inmates from committing more crimes after they’re released, a new paper reports.

Doin’ my time

“The unadjusted probabilities of both arrest and conviction for a violent crime were higher among those sentenced to prison compared with probation,” the paper reads.

“It is unclear whether these unadjusted outcomes reflect causal effects of imprisonment itself or systematic unobserved differences between those sentenced to prison versus probation in underlying propensity to engage in violence, thus motivating our use of the natural experiment based on [a random assignment of judges to criminal cases].”

The team, which included researchers from the University of California, the University of Michigan, Kaiser Permanente Colorado Institute for Health Research, the State University of New York, and the University of Colorado School of Medicine, used statistical methods to analyze the behavior of Michigan inmates. The study focused on those incarcerated for committing violent crimes, looking at their behavior in prison and after being released.

What the team wanted to see is how likely inmates were to re-engage in criminal behavior after their release from prison. The study drew on data from over 110,000 people who were convicted of violence-related felonies between 2003 and 2006 in Michigan. Some of them were sentenced to time in prison, while others were given probation. The team then followed the progress of each of these individuals through to the year 2015, looking for arrests, incarcerations, and other brushes with the wrong side of the law.

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Initially, the team reports, incarceration does seem to work: they found a slight decrease in crime rates for those sent to prison compared to those who were put on probation. However, the obvious needs pointing out here — it’s much harder to commit crime in prison even if you desperately wanted to. This was also highlighted by what they did after serving their time. After release, past inmates were just as likely as those placed on probation to engage in criminal activity. In other words, prison doesn’t turn criminals to the one true path. Who would have thought?

“People sentenced to prison were more likely to be subject to secondary [incarceration], meaning that they were at greater risk than people sentenced to probation of being sent to prison later due to technical violations of parole or probation,” the paper adds.

“We found that being sentenced to prison increased the probability of future imprisonment within 5 years by almost 20 percentage points among people with a nonviolent offence.”

Incarceration is probably one of the oldest forms of punishment we humans have ever implemented, and in certain respects, it’s certainly effective. If your goal is to stop (or at least severely impede) somebody from committing more crime, locking them up under guard is definitely going to do the trick.

But, we also tend to run this social narrative that prison is meant to teach people a lesson, and I have a problem with that. The thinking, I assume, goes that all that time spent behind bars will give inmates a chance to think about what they did, and why they shouldn’t do so again after being released. In my eyes, that line has a big, gaping, glaring flaw — the inmates know what they did; they were there. They’re not 5, unable to grasp the consequences of their actions so no amount of time-out will help.

I like to think that people naturally want to fit into the group (society) and follow its rules, because that’s the kind of hairless ape we are. I don’t think criminals are ‘born bad’ or that crime wells out of a desire to do evil; personally, I think it’s mostly a product of our environment and the circumstances we find ourselves in.

Sure, some people will resort to crime to get ahead, but those are rarely violent crimes — money laundering, fraud, environmental crime, tax evasion are much more profitable and clean. But, I think that average people resort to crime when they aren’t able, allowed, or taught how to operate within the boundaries that society deems as ‘right‘ and/or ‘legal’. Living in an Eastern European country struggling with illiberalism and government corruption has helped shape that idea in my head, and some studies do support my view.

But whether you think that prison is moralizing or not is not what this study aimed to find out. The team wanted to see if prison is effective and the data seems to indicate that it is not — at least, not any more effective than probation. The authors themselves note that imprisonment just isn’t an effective deterrent to crime and that prison is a lot more expensive than probation. If that’s the case, shouldn’t we take a look at whether prisons should be around any longer? It’s not cheap to hold an inmate in captivity, and according to these findings, it doesn’t benefit either the prisoners themselves or society at large.

Even worse, prisons are a very unsavory environment, and they actually breed and harden criminals. Wouldn’t our money be better spent on something that benefits at least one, if not both, of the parties involved? Norway and the Netherlands, for example, have enjoyed such success with rehabilitation programs that they’re actually closing down traditional jails for lack of criminals. Maybe we should try to emulate them more.

The paper “A natural experiment study of the effects of imprisonment on violence in the community” has been published in the journal Nature.