Journal of Experimental Criminology

, Volume 4, Issue 3, pp 241-266

First online:

Using simulation modeling to evaluate sentencing reform in California: choosing the future

  • Kathleen AuerhahnAffiliated withDepartment of Criminal Justice, Temple University Email author 

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Criminal sentencing reforms that have as their ostensible goal the protection of the public through the mechanism of selective incapacitation have proliferated in recent years. The most prominent of these types of reforms are the “Three Strikes” laws. Because these changes to sentencing policy work by extending the term of incarceration for affected offenders, rather than by changing the rate of incarceration, many years must pass before the effects of these kinds of changes can be measured and evaluated by conventional statistical methods. Data-validated dynamic systems simulation modeling offers the analyst an opportunity to evaluate prospectively the effects of such changes on prison populations. In addition to providing descriptive and evaluative information about the likely consequences of these reforms to the compositional dynamics of prison populations, dynamic systems simulation modeling also affords the analyst the opportunity to experiment upon the system to examine prospectively the likely effects of policy changes. In this paper, simulation models of the California criminal justice system are created and validated with historical data in order to provide a plausible baseline upon which to base future projections. Different policy scenarios are simulated to the year 2030 to assess experimentally the likely consequences to prison populations and to evaluate how well these policies target the “dangerous offenders” proponents that these policies promise to remove from society via incarceration.


Prison populations Selective incapacitations Sentencing reform Three strikes