Journal of Quantitative Criminology

, Volume 29, Issue 4, pp 579–600 | Cite as

The Incapacitation Effect of First-Time Imprisonment: A Matched Samples Comparison

  • Hilde WerminkEmail author
  • Robert Apel
  • Paul Nieuwbeerta
  • Arjan A. J. Blokland
Original Paper



The logic of incapacitation is the prevention of crime via the forced removal of known offenders from the community. The challenge is to provide a plausible estimate of how many crimes an incarcerated individual would have committed, were s/he free in the community rather than confined in prison. The objective of this study is to provide estimates of the incapacitation effect of first-time imprisonment from a sample of convicted offenders.


The data are official criminal records of all individuals convicted in The Netherlands in 1997. Two different analytical strategies are used to estimate an incapacitation effect. First, the offending rate of the imprisoned individuals prior to their confinement in 1997 provides a “within-person counterfactual”. Second, imprisoned offenders are paired with comparable non-imprisoned offenders using the method of propensity score matching in order to estimate a “between-person counterfactual”. Incapacitation estimates are provided separately for juvenile imprisonment (ages 12–17) as well as adult imprisonment (ages 18–50), and for male and female offenders.


The best estimate is that 1 year of incarceration prevents between 0.17 and 0.21 convictions per year. The use of additional data sources indicates that this corresponds to between roughly 2.0 and 2.5 criminal offenses recorded by the police.


The current results suggest that, insofar as imprisonment is used with the primary goal of reducing crime through incapacitation, a general increase in the use of incarceration as the sanction of choice is not likely to yield major crime control benefits.


Imprisonment Incapacitation effect Propensity score matching Lambda 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Hilde Wermink
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Robert Apel
    • 3
  • Paul Nieuwbeerta
    • 2
    • 4
  • Arjan A. J. Blokland
    • 2
    • 5
  1. 1.Kamerlingh Onnes GebouwLeidenThe Netherlands
  2. 2.Leiden UniversityLeidenThe Netherlands
  3. 3.Rutgers UniversityNewarkUSA
  4. 4.Utrecht UniversityUtrechtThe Netherlands
  5. 5.Nederlands Studiecentrum Criminaliteit en Rechtshandhaving (NSCR)—Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law EnforcementAmsterdamThe Netherlands

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