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

Abstract

Objectives

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.

Methods

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

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).

Conclusions

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Because the measurement of age differs by the type of sanction (i.e., probation vs. incarceration), there is possibility that those offenders who scored to prison will be systematically older than offenders who were not scored to prison. However, as we demonstrate below, there is no substantively or statistically significant difference between the two groups’ age at the beginning of the recidivism-tracking period.

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Correspondence to Ojmarrh Mitchell.

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Mitchell, O., Cochran, J.C., Mears, D.P. et al. The effectiveness of prison for reducing drug offender recidivism: a regression discontinuity analysis. J Exp Criminol 13, 1–27 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11292-017-9282-6

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Keywords

  • Drug crime
  • Prison
  • Recidivism
  • Specific deterrence
  • Regression discontinuity design