Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

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

An Author Correction to this article was published on 22 April 2020

This article has been updated

Abstract

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.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

Fig. 1: Arrests and convictions for violent crime.

Data availability

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.

Change history

References

  1. 1.

    MacCormick, A. The prison’s role in crime prevention. J. Crim. Law Criminol. 41, 36–48 (1950).

    Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    Travis, J. & Western, B. The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences (National Academies Press, 2014).

  3. 3.

    Koop, C. E. & Lundberg, G. B. Violence in America: a public health emergency. Time to bite the bullet back. J. Am. Med. Assoc. 267, 3075–3076 (1992).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. 4.

    Mercy, J. A., Rosenberg, M. L., Powell, K. E., Broome, C. V. & Roper, W. L. Public health policy for preventing violence. Health Aff. 12, 7–29 (1993).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  5. 5.

    Krug, E. G., Dahlberg, L. L., Mercy, J. A., Zwi, A. B. & Lozano, R. World Report on Violence and Health (WHO, 2002).

  6. 6.

    Thompson, D. Community Violence as a Population Health Issue (National Academies Press, 2016).

  7. 7.

    Corso, P. S., Mercy, J. A., Simon, T. R., Finkelstein, E. A. & Miller, T. R. Medical costs and productivity losses due to interpersonal and self-directed violence in the United States. Am. J. Prev. Med. 32, 474–482 (2007).

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Sharkey, P. T., Tirado-Strayer, N., Papachristos, A. V. & Raver, C. C. The effect of local violence on children’s attention and impulse control. Am. J. Public Health 102, 2287–2293 (2012).

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Zimmerman, G. M. & Posick, C. Risk factors for and behavioral consequences of direct versus indirect exposure to violence. Am. J. Public Health 106, 178–188 (2015).

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Sampson, R. J., Morenoff, J. D. & Raudenbush, S. Social anatomy of racial and ethnic disparities in violence. Am. J. Public Health 95, 224–232 (2005).

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    Parker, K. F. & Stansfield, R. The changing urban landscape: interconnections between racial/ethnic segregation and exposure in the study of race-specific violence over time. Am. J. Public Health 105, 1796–1805 (2015).

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Rockett, I. R. H. et al. Leading causes of unintentional and intentional injury mortality: United States, 2000–2009. Am. J. Public Health 102, 84–92 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    Western, B. Punishment and Inequality in America (Russell Sage Foundation, 2006).

  14. 14.

    Garland, D. The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society (Oxford Univ. Press, 2001).

  15. 15.

    Weaver, V. M. Frontlash: race and the development of punitive crime policy. Stud. Am. Polit. Dev. 21, 230–265 (2007).

    Google Scholar 

  16. 16.

    Alexander, M. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New Press, 2010).

  17. 17.

    Austin, J., Eisen, L.-B., Cullen, J. & Frank, J. How Many Americans are Unnecessarily Incarcerated? (Brennan Center for Justice, 2016).

  18. 18.

    Gottschalk, M. Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics (Princeton Univ. Press, 2016).

  19. 19.

    Bushway, S. D. & Paternoster, R. in Do Prisons Make Us Safer? The Benefits and Costs of the Prison Boom (eds Raphael, S. & Stoll, M. A.) 119–150 (Russell Sage Foundation, 2009).

  20. 20.

    Nagin, D. S., Cullen, F. T. & Jonson, C. L. Imprisonment and reoffending. Crime Justice 38, 115–200 (2009).

    Google Scholar 

  21. 21.

    Dumont, D. M., Brockmann, B., Dickman, S., Alexander, N. & Rich, J. D. Public health and the epidemic of incarceration. Annu. Rev. Public Health 33, 325–339 (2012).

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  22. 22.

    Schnittker, J., Massoglia, M. & Uggen, C. Out and down: incarceration and psychiatric disorders. J. Health Soc. Behav. 53, 448–464 (2012).

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  23. 23.

    Schnittker, J. & John, A. Enduring stigma: the long-term effects of incarceration on health. J. Health Soc. Behav. 48, 115–130 (2007).

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  24. 24.

    Swanson, J. W., McGinty, E. E., Fazel, S. & Mays, V. M. Mental illness and reduction of gun violence and suicide: bringing epidemiologic research to policy. Ann. Epidemiol. 25, 366–376 (2015).

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  25. 25.

    Caputo-Levine, D. D. The yard face: the contributions of inmate interpersonal violence to the carceral habitus. Ethnography 14, 165–185 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    Sampson, R. J. & Bartusch, D. J. Legal cynicism and (subcultural?) tolerance of deviance: the neighborhood context of racial differences. Law Soc. Rev. 32, 777–804 (1998).

    Google Scholar 

  27. 27.

    Trinkner, R. & Tyler, T. R. Legal socialization: coercion versus consent in an era of mistrust. Annu. Rev. Law Soc. Sci. 12, 417–439 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  28. 28.

    Pager, D. Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration (Univ. Chicago Press, 2007).

  29. 29.

    Kling, J. R. Incarceration length, employment, and earnings. Am. Econ. Rev. 96, 863–876 (2006).

    Google Scholar 

  30. 30.

    Loeffler, C. E. Does imprisonment alter the life course? Evidence on crime and employment from a natural experiment. Criminology 51, 137–166 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  31. 31.

    Granovetter, M. S. The strength of weak ties. Am. J. Sociol. 78, 1360–1380 (1973).

    Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    Tyler, J. H. & Kling, J. R. in Barriers to Reentry? The Labor Market for Released Prisoners in Post-Industrial America (eds Bushway, S., Stoll, M. A. & Weiman, D. F.) 227–256 (2007).

  33. 33.

    Harding, D. J., Morenoff, J. D., Nguyen, A. P. & Bushway, S. D. Short- and long-term effects of imprisonment on future felony convictions and prison admissions. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 114, 11103–11108 (2017).

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  34. 34.

    Harding, D. J., Morenoff, J. D., Nguyen, A. P. & Bushway, S. D. Imprisonment and labor market outcomes: evidence from a natural experiment. Am. J. Sociol. 124, 49–110 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  35. 35.

    Mossman, D. Assessing predictions of violence: being accurate about accuracy. J. Consult. Clin. Psychol. 62, 783–792 (1994).

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Mitchell, O., Cochran, J. C., Mears, D. P. & Bales, W. D. Examining prison effects on recidivism: a regression discontinuity approach. Justice Q. 34, 571–596 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  37. 37.

    Jolliffe, D. & Hedderman, C. Investigating the impact of custody on reoffending using propensity score matching. Crime Delinq. 61, 1051–1077 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  38. 38.

    Cochran, J. C., Mears, D. P. & Bales, W. D. Assessing the effectiveness of correctional sanctions. J. Quant. Criminol. 30, 317–347 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  39. 39.

    Bales, W. D. & Piquero, A. R. Assessing the impact of imprisonment on recidivism. J. Exp. Criminol. 8, 71–101 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  40. 40.

    Rydberg, J. & Clark, K. Variation in the incarceration length–recidivism dose–response relationship. J. Crim. Justice 46, 118–128 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  41. 41.

    Meade, B., Steiner, B., Makarios, M. & Travis, L. Estimating a dose–response relationship between time served in prison and recidivism. J. Res. Crime Delinq. 50, 525–550 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  42. 42.

    Loughran, T. A. et al. Estimating a dose-response relationship between length of stay and future recidivism in serious juvenile offenders. Criminology 47, 699–740 (2009).

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  43. 43.

    Chen, M. K. & Shapiro, J. M. Do harsher prison conditions reduce recidivism? A discontinuity-based approach. Am. Law Econ. Rev. 9, 1–29 (2007).

    Google Scholar 

  44. 44.

    Smith, J. A. & Todd, P. E. Does matching overcome LaLonde’s critique of nonexperimental estimators? J. Econom. 125, 305–353 (2005).

    Google Scholar 

  45. 45.

    LaLonde, R. Evaluating the econometric evaluations of training programs with experimental data. Am. Econ. Rev. 76, 604–620 (1986).

    Google Scholar 

  46. 46.

    Reiss, A. J. Jr & Roth, J. A. Understanding and Controlling Violence (National Academy Press, 1993).

  47. 47.

    Levitt, S. D. The effect of prison population size on crime rates: evidence from prison overcrowding litigation. Q. J. Econ. 111, 319–351 (1996).

    Google Scholar 

  48. 48.

    Aizer, A. & Doyle, J. J. Juvenile incarceration, human capital, and future crime: evidence from randomly assigned judges. Q. J. Econ. 130, 759–803 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  49. 49.

    Lofstrom, M. & Raphael, S. Realignment, Incarceration, and Crime Trends in California (Public Policy Institute of California, 2015).

  50. 50.

    Green, D. P. & Winik, D. Using random judge assignments to estimate the effects of incarceration and probation on recidivism among drug offenders. Criminology 48, 357–387 (2010).

    Google Scholar 

  51. 51.

    Harding, D. J., Morenoff, J. D. & Herbert, C. W. Home is hard to find: neighborhoods, institutions, and the residential trajectories of returning prisoners. Ann. Am. Acad. Pol. Soc. Sci. 647, 214–236 (2013).

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  52. 52.

    Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics (Univ. at Albany, 2018).

  53. 53.

    1997–2006 Crime Statistics: State Totals https://www.michigan.gov/msp/0,4643,7-123-1586_3501_4621-25744--,00.html (Michigan State Police, accessed 22 November 2018).

  54. 54.

    Chapman, S., Alpers, P. & Jones, M. Association between gun law reforms and intentional firearm deaths in Australia, 1979–2013. J. Am. Med. Assoc. 316, 291–299 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  55. 55.

    Wintemute, G. J. The future of firearm violence prevention: building on success. J. Am. Med. Assoc. 282, 475–478 (1999).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  56. 56.

    Santilli, A. et al. Bridging the response to mass shootings and urban violence: exposure to violence in New Haven, Connecticut. Am. J. Public Health 107, 374–379 (2017).

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  57. 57.

    Comfort, M. Punishment beyond the legal offender. Annu. Rev. Law Soc. Sci. 3, 271–296 (2007).

    Google Scholar 

  58. 58.

    Wildeman, C. & Muller, C. Mass imprisonment and inequality in health and family life. Annu. Rev. Law Soc. Sci. 8, 11–30 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  59. 59.

    Massoglia, M. & Pridemore, W. A. Incarceration and health. Annu. Rev. Sociol. 41, 291–310 (2015).

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  60. 60.

    Schnittker, J., Massoglia, M. & Uggen, C. Incarceration and the health of the African American community. Du Bois Rev. 8, 1–9 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  61. 61.

    Patterson, E. J. The dose–response of time served in prison on mortality: New York State, 1989–2003. Am. J. Public Health 103, 523–528 (2013).

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  62. 62.

    Lee, H., Wildeman, C., Wang, E. A., Matusko, N. & Jackson, J. S. A heavy burden: the cardiovascular health consequences of having a family member incarcerated. Am. J. Public Health 104, 421–427 (2014).

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  63. 63.

    Wildeman, C., Andersen, S. H., Lee, H. & Karlson, K. B. Parental incarceration and child mortality in Denmark. Am. J. Public Health 104, 428–433 (2014).

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  64. 64.

    Turney, K. & Wildeman, C. Redefining relationships explaining the countervailing consequences of paternal incarceration for parenting. Am. Sociol. Rev. 78, 949–979 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  65. 65.

    Bhuller, M., Dahl, G. B., Løken, K. V. & Mogstad, M. Incarceration Spillovers in Criminal and Family Networks NBER Working Paper No. 24878 (National Bureau of Economic Research, 2018).

  66. 66.

    Angrist, J. D. & Pischke, J.-S. Mostly Harmless Econometrics: An Empiricist’s Companion (Princeton Univ. Press, 2009).

  67. 67.

    Newhouse, J. P. & McClellan, M. Econometrics in outcomes research: the use of instrumental variables. Annu. Rev. Public Health 19, 17–34 (1998).

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

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

Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to David J. Harding.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Methods, Supplementary References, Supplementary Figures 1 and 2 and Supplementary Tables 1–8.

Reporting Summary

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Harding, D.J., Morenoff, J.D., Nguyen, A.P. et al. A natural experiment study of the effects of imprisonment on violence in the community. Nat Hum Behav 3, 671–677 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-019-0604-8

Download citation

Further reading

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing