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Deterrent effects of sanction severity and the role of procedural justice in prison: a preregistered randomized vignette experiment

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Abstract

Objectives

This study tests deterrence theory and procedural justice theory in prisons. Severe sanctions in prisons may deter detainees from misconduct. Recent research suggests that this deterrent effect may only occur if individuals are treated procedurally just by prison staff.

Methods

Using an experimental vignette scenario design (N = 313 detainees and ex-detainees) we manipulated sanction severity and procedural justice across conditions testing the main and interaction effects of sanction severity and procedural justice on misconduct intentions (outcome measure 1) and compliance intentions (outcome measure 2). Also, we tested potential mediation pathways from sanction severity on these outcomes and the role of procedural justice therein.

Results

Individuals reported lower intentions to comply in the severe as opposed to the mild sanction condition (η2 = .03). There was no significant main effect of procedural justice on misconduct and compliance intentions. The effect of sanction severity did not depend on procedural justice. Additionally, the effect of sanction severity on misconduct and compliance intentions was mediated by the moral devaluation of authorities.

Conclusion

The present findings underscore the potential disadvantages of severely sanctioning in prison settings. Severe sanctions may backfire and decrease compliance intentions with institutional rules and staff.

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Data availability

Due to the nature of this research, participants of this study did not agree for their data to be shared publicly, so supporting data is not available.

Notes

  1. In two forensic care facilities, the purpose of the research and questionnaire was explained to all potential participants simultaneously. Next, all individuals willing to participate filled in the questionnaire in the same room. Similarly, in the prisons/pretrial facilities some individuals filled in the questionnaire in the presence of, or simultaneously with other participants. The researcher supervised the situation and answered questions. Researchers did not get the impression that participants discussed the scenarios with each other while filling in the questionnaire. Therefore, for most individuals blinding of the experimental condition remained intact.

  2. If a participant had more than 30% missing on the items that were used to compute the mean score we did not compute a mean score for that participant.

  3. If a participant had more than 30% missing on the items that were used to compute the mean score we did not compute a mean score for that participant.

  4. Interestingly, individuals in the severe sanction condition also reported feeling treated less procedurally just compared to individuals in the mild condition (Ms = 2.91 versus 3.22, respectively for the severe versus mild condition); F(1, 305) = 7.35, p = .007, η2 = .02.

  5. Unexpectedly, individuals that were treated fairly in the vignette scenario also indicated to experience their sanction as less severe (Ms = 2.71 versus 3, respectively) compared to individuals that were treated unfairly; F(1, 305) = 4.95, p = . 027, η2 = .01.

  6. Because the normality assumption was violated, we repeated the analysis using the Kruskal–Wallis chi-squared test (9.65, df = 1, p = 0.002).

  7. Test statistics of the mediation effects of sanction severity via moral evaluation of authorities on overall compliance intentions (b = -.11, p < .001, CI95% bootstrap [-0.19; -0.05]); and compliance intentions with guard Mark (b = -.13, p < .001, CI95% bootstrap [- 0.22;—0.04]).

  8. Test statistics of the mediation effects of sanction severity via moral evaluation of authorities on overall misconduct intentions (b = 0.08, p = .002, CI95% bootstrap [0.02; 0.14]); misconduct intentions toward fellow detainees (b = 0.06, p = .027, CI95% bootstrap [0.007; 0.14]); and misconduct intentions toward guards (b = 0.08, p = .004, CI95% bootstrap [0.02; 0.15]).

  9. Test statistics of the mediation effects of sanction severity via perceived group membership of the Dutch society on overall compliance intentions (b = 0.03, p = .047, CI95% bootstrap [0.0; 0.09]).

  10. Our questionnaire contained a measure of perceived group membership of the Dutch society. On average participants disagreed slightly (M = 2.37; SD = 1.13) with the statement “I am a member of the Dutch society”, rated on a five-point Likert scale ranging from completely disagree (1) to completely agree (5).

  11. This analysis was the only exploratory analysis that was not preregistered.

  12. F(1, 300) = 8.13, p = .005, η2 = .02.

  13. F(1, 300) = 23.34, p < .001, η2 = .07.

  14. F(1, 303) = 12.89, p < . 001, η2 = .04.

  15. F(1, 303) = 11.52, p < .001, η2 = .04.

  16. F(1, 303) = 10.78, p < .001, η2 = .03.

  17. F(1, 303) = 3.97, p = . 047, η2 = .01.

References

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Acknowledgements

We thank Prof. Dr. Henk Elffers (NSCR) and Khalil Chait (experience expert) for their advice when designing this study. We thank Prof. Jan-Willem van Prooijen (NSCR) for comments on our preregistration and on our manuscript. We thank Stitching Exodus and DJI (and in particular PI Arnhem and PI Almelo) for giving us access to their institutions to approach potential participants and all colleagues and interns that helped to collect the data.

Funding

This project was funded by an Open Competition grant from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO).

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Correspondence to Franziska M. Yasrebi-de Kom.

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Appendix

Appendix

Preregistered exploratory analyses

Detection probability

We included a measure of detection probability in our questionnaire to test whether detection probability affects reported compliance and misconduct intentions.Footnote 11 Detection probability, or the perceived probability to be apprehended when breaking the institutional rules, is one of the elements of deterrence theory (Apel, 2022; Chalfin & McCrary, 2017; Nagin, 2013). Based on past studies, perception of higher detection probability is expected to reduce misconduct intentions and increase compliance intentions (Nagin, 2013). However, in our study there was no significant main effect of detection probability on misconduct or compliance intentions. Additionally, regimes that impose severer sanctions may be perceived as more stringent, which in turn may affect the perceived detection probability. Hence, we tested whether sanction severity affects detection probability. We did not find such a main effect.

Legitimacy

We also included a measure of legitimacy in our study because perceived legitimacy of authorities has frequently been linked to higher compliance rates and lower misconduct rates; and has sometimes been mentioned as the mechanism that explains the relationship of procedural justice and compliance/misconduct (Ryan & Bergin, 2022). Because of the potential benefits of legitimately perceived authorities we also considered it of relevance to test whether severely sanctioning affects legitimacy. In our study, sanction severity decreased legitimacy and procedural justice increased legitimacy. Participants in the severe sanction condition indicated having significantly less trust and confidence (i.e., legitimacy) in the guard in the vignette scenario compared to participants in the mild sanction condition (Ms = 2.81 versus 3.12, respectively).Footnote 12 Similarly, participants in the fair condition reported significantly higher legitimacy (M = 3.20) compared to participants in the unfair condition (M = 2.71).Footnote 13

Outcome satisfaction and outcome fairness

We also measured whether individuals judged the hypothetically received sanction as a fair outcome sanction (i.e., “I think it is fair that Mark brings me to my cell.”) and whether they were satisfied with their sanction (i.e., “That Mark brings me to my cell is good for me.”). Procedural justice and sanction severity were frequently found to be linked to both outcome satisfaction and outcome fairness (Skitka et al., 2003). These in turn, may be relevant for peoples’ behavioral intentions. In our study, participants in the severe sanction condition reported lower outcome fairness compared to participants in the mild sanction condition (Ms = 2.73 versus 3.18, respectively)Footnote 14 and lower outcome satisfaction (Ms = 2.56 versus 2.99, respectively).Footnote 15 Similarly, participants in the fair condition reported higher outcome fairness (M = 3.15) compared to participants in the unfair condition (M = 2.76)Footnote 16 and higher outcome satisfaction (Ms = 2.90 versus 2.65, respectively).Footnote 17

Mediations

Lastly, we tested whether detection probability, legitimacy, outcome fairness and outcome satisfaction are potential mechanisms on the pathway from sanction severity or fair treatment to misconduct and compliance intentions. Table 6 shows all significant mediation models. The general pattern is that people in the severe sanction condition report lower legitimacy, outcome fairness and outcome satisfaction, and we observe a reversed effect from the procedural justice condition on these exploratory mediators. In turn, we observed that legitimacy, outcome fairness and outcome satisfaction decrease misconduct intentions and increase compliance intentions.

Table 6 Overview of significant exploratory mediations for each independent/dependent variable combination per mediator

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Yasrebi-de Kom, F.M., Dirkzwager, A.J.E., van der Laan, P.H. et al. Deterrent effects of sanction severity and the role of procedural justice in prison: a preregistered randomized vignette experiment. J Exp Criminol (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11292-023-09585-7

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