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A natural experiment study of the effects of imprisonment on violence in the community

Nature Human Behaviour (2019) | Download Citation


One of the goals of imprisonment is to reduce violence1. Although imprisonment has risen dramatically since the 1970s, its effects on future violent crime are poorly understood2. This study’s objective was to examine the effect of imprisonment on violent crime in the community among individuals on the policy margin between prison and probation sentences. Drawing on data from a population-based cohort of individuals convicted of a felony in Michigan between 2003 and 2006 (n = 111,110) and followed through June 2015, we compared the rates of commission of violent crime committed by individuals sentenced to prison with those of individuals sentenced to probation using a natural experiment based on the random assignment of judges to criminal cases. Being sentenced to prison had no significant effects on arrests or convictions for violent crimes after release from prison, but imprisonment modestly reduced the probability of violence if comparisons included the effects of incapacitation during imprisonment. These results suggest that for individuals on the current policy margin between prison and probation, imprisonment is an ineffective long-term intervention for violence prevention, as it has, on balance, no rehabilitative or deterrent effects after release.

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Access to the data used in this paper was granted without permission for public distribution. The data can be requested directly from the Michigan Department of Corrections, Office of Research and Planning, 206 East Michigan Avenue, Grandview Plaza, PO Box 30003, Lansing, MI 48909, USA.

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We thank C. Chilcote and P. Hatchett at the Michigan Department of Corrections for facilitating access to the data and for advice on their use. This study was funded by grants from the National Science Foundation (SES1061018) and Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (R01 HD079467), with additional support from grants from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to the Population Studies centres at the University of Michigan (R24 HD041028) and University of California, Berkeley (R24 HD073964). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information


  1. Department of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, USA

    • David J. Harding
  2. Social Sciences D-Lab, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, USA

    • David J. Harding
  3. Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA

    • Jeffrey D. Morenoff
  4. Department of Sociology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA

    • Jeffrey D. Morenoff
  5. Kaiser Permanente Colorado Institute for Health Research, Aurora, CO, USA

    • Anh P. Nguyen
    •  & Ingrid A. Binswanger
  6. Department of Public Administration and Policy, Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy, University at Albany, State University of New York, Albany, NY, USA

    • Shawn D. Bushway
  7. Division of General Internal Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Colorado School of Medicine, Aurora, CO, USA

    • Ingrid A. Binswanger


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D.J.H., J.D.M., S.D.B. and I.A.B. developed the research questions. D.J.H., J.D.M. and S.D.B. contributed to the research design. D.J.H., J.D.M. and A.P.N. were responsible for data collection. A.P.N. was responsible for data management, and conducted the statistical analysis with input from D.J.H., J.D.M. and S.D.B. All authors contributed to interpretation of the data. D.J.H. wrote the first draft of the manuscript. All authors contributed to writing and critically revising the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to David J. Harding.

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