Journal of Experimental Criminology

, Volume 13, Issue 1, pp 1–27 | Cite as

The effectiveness of prison for reducing drug offender recidivism: a regression discontinuity analysis

  • Ojmarrh MitchellEmail author
  • Joshua C. Cochran
  • Daniel P. Mears
  • William D. Bales



An enduring legacy of the 1980s “war on drugs” is the increased use of imprisonment for drug offenders. Advocates anticipated, in part, that prison is more effective than community sanctions in reducing recidivism. Despite the contribution of drug offender incarceration to prison growth nationally, and debates about whether this approach should be curtailed, only limited rigorous research exists that evaluates the effect of imprisonment on drug offender recidivism. To address this gap, this paper uses sentencing and recidivism data from a cohort of individuals convicted of felony drug offenses in Florida to examine the effect of imprisonment—as compared to community sanctions—on recidivism.


Regression discontinuity analyses are used. These minimize potential selection bias by exogenously assigning cases to conditions based on a rating variable and a cut-off score.


Results indicate that prison has no effect on drug offenders’ rates of reconviction. This finding holds across a range of offender subgroups (racial and ethnic, gender, age, and prior criminal justice system involvement).


Imprisoning individuals convicted of marginally serious drug offenses—that is, those close to a cut-off score for being sent to prison—did not reduce subsequent offending. This finding suggests that curtailing the use of imprisonment for such individuals will not appreciably affect future criminal activity and may have the benefit of reducing correctional system costs.


Drug crime Prison Recidivism Specific deterrence Regression discontinuity design 


  1. Abt Associates (2001). The price of illicit drugs: 1981 through the second quarter of 2000. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy.Google Scholar
  2. Adams, R., Almeida, H., & Ferreira, D. (2009). Understanding the relationship between founder-CEOs and firm performance. Journal of Empirical Finance, 16, 136–150.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Alexander, M. (2010). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York: The New Press.Google Scholar
  4. Bales, W. D., & Piquero, A. R. (2012). Assessing the impact of imprisonment on recidivism. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 8, 71–101.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Beckett, K., Nyrop, K., & Pfingst, L. (2006). Race, drugs, and policing: Understanding disparities in drug delivery arrests. Criminology, 44, 105–137.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Belenko, S., & Peugh, J. (2005). Estimating drug treatment needs among state prison inmates. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 77, 269–281.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Berk, R., Barnes, G., Ahlman, L., & Kurtz, E. (2010). When second best is good enough: a comparison between a true experiment and a regression discontinuity quasi-experiment. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 6, 191–208.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bloom, H. S. (2012). Modern regression discontinuity analysis. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 5, 43–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Blumstein, A., & Beck, A. J. (1999). Population growth in US prisons, 1980–1996. In M. Tonry & J. Petersilia (Eds.), Prisons (pp. 17–61). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  10. Bobo, L. D., & Thompson, V. (2006). Unfair by design: The War on Drugs, race, and the legitimacy of the criminal justice system. Social Research, 73, 445–472.Google Scholar
  11. Boyum, D., & Reuter, P. (2005). An analytic assessment of U.S. drug policy. Washington, D.C.: AEI Press.Google Scholar
  12. Bureau of Justice Assistance (1996). National Assessment of Structured Sentencing. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.Google Scholar
  13. Carson, E. A. (2015). Prisoners in 2014. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.Google Scholar
  14. Chen, M. K., & Shapiro, J. M. (2007). Do harsher prison conditions reduce recidivism? A discontinuity-based approach. American Law and Economic Review, 9, 1–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Clear, T. R. (2007). Imprisoning communities: How mass incarceration makes disadvantaged neighborhoods worse. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Cochran, J. C., Mears, D. P., & Bales, W. D. (2014). Assessing the effectiveness of correctional sanctions. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 30, 317–347.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Cooper, H., Moore, L., Gruskin, S., & Krieger, N. (2005). The impact of a police crackdown on drug injectors’ ability to practice harm reduction: A qualitative study. Social Science & Medicine, 61, 673–684.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Council, N. R. (2014). The growth of incarceration in the united states: Exploring causes and consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.Google Scholar
  19. Cullen, F. T., Jonson, C. L., & Nagin, D. S. (2011). Prisons do not reduce recidivism: The high cost of ignoring science. The Prison Journal, 91, 48S–65S.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Dunning, T. (2012). Natural experiments in the social sciences: A design-based approach. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Durlauf, S. N., & Nagin, D. S. (2011). Imprisonment and crime: Can both be reduced? Criminology and Public Policy, 10, 13–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Erickson, P. G., Riley, D. M., Cheung, Y. W., & O’Hare, P. A. (Eds.). (1997). Harm reduction: A new direction for drug policies and programs. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.Google Scholar
  23. Florida Department of Corrections & Office of the State Courts Administrator. (2012). Florida Criminal Punishment Code. Tallahassee, FL: Florida Department of Corrections & Office of the State Courts Administrator.Google Scholar
  24. Forer, L. G. (1994). A rage to punish: The unintended consequences of mandatory sentencing. New York: Norton.Google Scholar
  25. Foster, H. (2012). The strains of maternal imprisonment: Importation and deprivation stressors for women and children. Journal of Criminal Justice, 40, 221–229.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Frandsen, B. R. (2014). Party bias in union representation elections: Testing for manipulation in the regression discontinuity design when the running variable is discrete. Manuscript, Brigham Young University, Department of Economics.Google Scholar
  27. Garland, D. (2001). The culture of control: Crime and social order in contemporary society. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  28. Gelman, A., & Loken, E. (2014). The statistical crisis in science. American Scientist, 102, 460.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Gendreau, P., Goggin, C., Cullen, F. T., & Andrews, D. A. (2000). The effects of community sanctions and incarceration on recidivism. Forum on Corrections Research, 12, 10–13.Google Scholar
  30. Glaze, L. E., & Maruschak, L. M. (2008). Parents in prison and their minor children. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Green, D. P., & Winik, D. (2010). Using random judge assignment to estimate the effects of incarceration and probation on recidivism among drug offenders. Criminology, 48, 357–387.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Guy, S. (2014). The U.S. Senate remains focused on sentencing reform legislation. The Police Chief, LXXXI(10).Google Scholar
  33. Harer, M. D., & Steffensmeier, D. J. (1996). Race and prison violence. Criminology, 34, 323–355.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Henrichson, C., & Delaney, R. (2012). The price of prisons: What incarceration costs taxpayers. Federal Sentencing Reporter, 25, 68–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Holsinger, K. (2014). The feminist prison. In F. T. Cullen, C. L. Jonson, & M. K. Stohr (Eds.), The American prison: Imagining a different future (pp. 87–110). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Imbens, G. W., & Kalyanaraman, K. (2009). Optimal Bandwidth Choice for the Regression Discontinuity Estimator (NBER Working Paper 14726). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Imbens, G. W., & Lemieux, T. (2008). Special issue: The regression and discontinuity design: Theory and applications. Journal of Econometrics, 142, 611–850.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. James, D. J., & Glaze, L. E. (2006). Mental health problems of prison and jail inmates. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Jonson, C. L. 2011. The impact of imprisonment on reoffending: A meta-analysis. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Cincinnati, OH.Google Scholar
  40. Kirk, D. S. (2009). A natural experiment on residential change and recidivism: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina. American Sociological Review, 74, 484–505.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Kleiman, M. (2009). When brute force fails. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Kubrin, C. E., & Stewart, E. A. (2006). Predicting who reoffends: the neglected role of neighborhood context in recidivism studies. Criminology, 44, 165–197.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. La Vigne, N., Davies, E., Palmer, T., & Halberstadt, R. (2008). Release planning for successful reentry. Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute.Google Scholar
  44. Legal Action Center. (2004). After prison: Roadblocks to reentry. New York: Legal Action Center.Google Scholar
  45. MacCoun, R., & Reuter, P. (2001). Drug war heresies: Learning from other vices, times, and places. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Maitland, A. S., & Sluder, R. D. (1998). Victimization and youthful prison inmates: An empirical analysis. The Prison Journal, 78, 55–73.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Martin, W. G. (2016). (Online, forthcoming) Decarceration and justice disinvestment: Evidence from New York State. Punishment & Society.Google Scholar
  48. Mazerolle, L., Soole, D., & Rombouts, S. (2007). Drug law enforcement: A review of the evaluation literature. Police Quarterly, 10, 115–137.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. McCrary, J. (2008). Manipulation of the running variable in the regression discontinuity design: A density test. Journal of Econometrics, 142, 698–714.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. McDougall, C., Cohen, M. A., Swaray, R., & Perry, A. (2003). The costs and benefits of sentencing: A systematic review. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 587, 160–177.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Mears, D. P. (2010). American criminal justice policy: An evaluation approach to increasing accountability and effectiveness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Mears, D. P., & Cochran, J. C. (2015). Prisoner reentry in the era of mass incarceration. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  53. Mears, D. P., Cochran, J. C., & Bales, W. D. (2012). Gender differences in the effects of prison on recidivism. Journal of Criminal Justice, 40, 370–378.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Mears, D. P., Cochran, J. C., & Cullen, F. T. (2015). Incarceration heterogeneity and its implications for assessing the effectiveness of imprisonment on recidivism. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 26, 691–712.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Mitchell, O. (2005). A meta-analysis of race and sentencing research: Explaining the inconsistencies. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 21, 439–466.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Mitchell, O., & Caudy, M. (2015). Examining racial disparities in drug arrests. Justice Quarterly, 32, 288–313.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Murnane, R. J., & Willett, J. B. (2011). Methods matter: Improving causal inference in educational and social science. New York: Oxford University Press Google Scholar
  58. Nagin, D. S. (1998). Criminal deterrence research at the outset of the twenty-first century. In M. Tonry (Ed.), Crime and Justice (Vol. 23, pp. 1–42). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  59. Nagin, D., Cullen, F. T., & Jonson, C. L. (2009). Imprisonment and reoffending. In M. Tonry (Ed.), Crime and Justice (Vol. 38, pp. 115–200). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  60. Office of National Drug Control Policy. (1989). National drug control strategy. Washington, D.C.: Office of National Drug Control Policy.Google Scholar
  61. Patterson, E. J. (2015). Hidden disparities: Decomposing inequalities in time served in California, 1985–2009. Law and Society Review, 49, 467–498.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Petersilia, J. (2003). When prisoners come home: Parole and prisoner reentry. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  63. Pew Research Center. (2014). America’s new drug policy landscape: two-thirds favor treatment, not jail, for use of heroin, cocaine. Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center.Google Scholar
  64. Provine, D. M. (2007). Unequal under the law: Race in the War on Drugs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Reilly, R. J., & Knafo, S. (Producer). (2014, April 2, 2014). Law enforcement lobby quietly tries to kill sentencing reform. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from Scholar
  66. Reuter, P. (2013). Why has US drug policy changed so little over 30 years? In M. Tonry (Ed.), Crime and Justice (Vol. 42, pp. 75–140). Chicago: University of Chicago.Google Scholar
  67. Rocque, M. (2011). Racial disparities in the criminal justice system and perceptions of legitimacy: A Theoretical Linkage. Race and Justice, 1, 292–315.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Sevigny, E. L., Fuleihan, B. K., & Ferdik, F. V. (2013). Do drug courts reduce the use of incarceration?: A meta-analysis. Journal of Criminal Justice, 41, 416–425.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Shadish, W. R., Cook, T. D., & Campbell, D. T. (2001). Experimental and quasi-experimental designs for generalized causal inference. Cengage Learning.Google Scholar
  70. Sherman, L. W. (1993). Defiance, deterrence, and irrelevance: A theory of the criminal sanction. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 30, 445–473.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Smith, P., Goggin, C., & Gendreau, P. (2002). The effects of prison sentences and intermediate sanctions on recidivism: general effects and individual differences. Ontario, Canada: Solicitor General of Canada.Google Scholar
  72. Spohn, C., & Holleran, D. (2000). The imprisonment penalty paid by young, unemployed black, and Hispanic male offenders. Criminology, 38, 281–306.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Spohn, C., & Holleran, D. (2002). The effect of imprisonment on recidivism rates of felony offenders: A focus on drug offenders. Criminology, 40, 329–358.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Steffensmeier, D., & Demuth, S. (2000). Ethnicity and sentencing outcomes in U.S. federal courts: Who is punished more harshly? American Sociological Review, 65, 705–729.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Steffensmeier, D., Ulmer, J., & Kramer, J. (1998). The interaction of race, gender, and age, in criminal sentencing: The punishment cost of being young, black, and male. Criminology, 36, 763–798.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Stuntz, W. J. (2011). The collapse of American criminal justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. The Marshall Project. (2015). What you need to know about the new federal prisoner release. The Marshall Project. October 6, accessed at
  78. The New York Times. (2015). Cut sentences for low-level drug crimes. The New York Times. November 23, p. A22.Google Scholar
  79. The Sentencing Project. (2015). Trends in U.S. corrections. Washington DC: The Sentencing Project.Google Scholar
  80. Thistlethwaite, D. L., & Campbell, D. T. (1960). Regression-discontinuity analysis: An alternative to the ex-post facto experiment. Journal of Educational Psychology, 51, 309–317.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Tonry, M. (1994). Racial politics, racial disparities, and the war on crime. Crime & Delinquency, 40, 475–494.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Tonry, M. (1995). Malign neglect: Race, crime, and punishment in America. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  83. Tonry, M. (2011). Punishing race: A continuing American dilemma. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  84. Tonry, M., & Melewski, M. (2008). The malign effects of drug and crime control policies on black Americans. In M. Tonry (Ed.), Crime and Justice (Vol. 37, pp. 1–44). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  85. Trochim, W. M. K. (1984). Research design for program evaluation: The regression-discontinuity approach. Beverly Hills: Sage.Google Scholar
  86. Tyler, T. (1990). Why people obey the law. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  87. Unnever J. D., & Gabbidon S. L. (2011). A theory of African American offending: race, racism, and crime. New York: RoutledgeGoogle Scholar
  88. Villettaz, P., Killias, M., & Zoder, I. (2006). The effects of custodial vs. noncustodial sentences on re-offending: A systematic review of the state of knowledge. Philadelphia: The Campbell Collaboration Crime and Justice Group.Google Scholar
  89. Wacquant, L. (2001). Deadly symbiosis: When ghetto and prison meet and mesh. Punishment & Society, 3, 95–133.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  90. Wacquant, L. (2010). Class, race, and hyperincarceration in revanchist America. Daedalus, 139, 74–90.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  91. Wang, X., Mears, D. P., & Bales, W. D. (2010). Race-specific employment contexts and recidivism. Criminology, 48, 1171–1211.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  92. Ward, D. A., & Kassenbaum, G. G. (2009). Women’s prisons: Sex and social structure. New Brunswick, NJ: Aldine Transaction.Google Scholar
  93. Warren, P., Chiricos, T., & Bales, W. (2012). The imprisonment penalty for young black and Hispanic males: A crime-specific analysis. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 49, 56–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  94. Western, B. (2006). Punishment and inequality in America. New York: Russell Sage.Google Scholar
  95. Wooldridge, J. M. (2002). Econometric analysis of cross section and panel data. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  96. Wright, E., Van Voorhis, P., Salisbury, E., & Bauman, A. (2012). Gender-responsive lessons learned and policy implications for women in prison: A review. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 39, 1612–1632.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  97. Zarkin, G. A., Cowell, A. J., Hicks, A. J., Mills, M. J., Belenko, S., Dunlap, L. J., & Keyes, V. (2015). Lifetime benefits and costs of diverting substance-abusing offenders from state prison. Crime & Delinquency, 61, 829–850.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  98. Zogby International. (2008). Zogby interactive likely voters 9/23/08 thru 9/25/08 [Web Page]. Retrieved August 19, 2009 from Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of CriminologyUniversity of South FloridaTampaUSA
  2. 2.University of Cincinnati’s School of Criminal JusticeCincinnatiUSA
  3. 3.Florida State University’s College of Criminology and Criminal JusticeTallahasseeUSA

Personalised recommendations