Treating Offenders: They Tried To Make Me Go to Rehab and I Said “Yes, Yes, Yes”

Yves here. On the one hand, it is very important to look at the efficacy of various approaches to handling offenders. Vengeance might be fun, but is it productive? And given the difficulty of performing actual experiments on rehabilitation versus punishment, this natural experiment is an important data point.

Yet there are so many issues involved in what matters in helping offenders avoiding falling back into criminal activity (even before you get to the US case of disproportionate prosecution and sentencing of people of color), that I don’t want readers to think we’ve ignored an elephant in the room, that of the ease and payoff of getting a job after having served time. For instance, the abstract of a Harvard paper from 2016:

This paper estimates the impact of local labor market conditions on criminal recidivismu sing administrative prison records on four million offenders released from 43 states between 2000 and 2013. Exploiting the timing of each offender’s release from prison, I find that being released to a county with higher low-skilled wages significantly decreases the risk of recidivism. The impact of higher wages on recidivism is larger for both black offenders and first-time offenders, and in sectors that report being more willing to hire ex-offenders. These results are robust to individual- and county-level controls, such as policing and corrections activity, and do not appear to be driven by changes in the composition of released offenders during good or bad economic times

And even though many and I would assume most jails and prisons range from bad to horrific (witness graphic descriptions of the New York City jails, Rikers and the Tombs), I take this recent story as evidence that inmates and their guards can have decent relationships (even outside Club Fed settings):

By Giulia Lotti, Economist, Inter-American Development Bank. Originally published at VoxEU

More than half of all young offenders in the US are rearrested within the first year of their release from prison. And yet, the relationship between crime and punishment remains understudied. This column examines three quasi-experiments and the criminal records of 6,444 offenders in England and Wales to compare the effects of harsh versus rehabilitative incarceration practices. The findings suggest that young offenders sent to rehabilitative facilities are less likely to reoffend, while those exposed to harsher facilities are 27% more likely to reoffend, and also more likely to commit future violent offences.

Research into the economics of crime suffers from measurement issues and identification challenges (e.g. Pinotti 2020). The economic analysis of crime poses difficulties that cannot be addressed through randomised control trials and for which the endogeneity problem is hard to tackle. For example, do tough prisons deter young offenders from repeating crimes?

According to a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 44% of released prisoners in the US are rearrested within the first year after release, and the figure is even higher (52%) for younger offenders (Alper et al. 2018).1 In England and Wales, the reoffending rate for adult offenders released from custody is 46.8% within one year, and 67.6% for juvenile offenders (Ministry of Justice 2020).2

Crime poses enormous social and economic costs, so it is important to understand which custody conditions can reduce (or worsen) reoffending, especially for young people.

Theory Helps Us Frame the Question

On the one hand, tough policies and harsh sentences may discourage the general population from embarking on criminal activity (a ‘general deterrence effect’), or the individual offender from committing new crimes in the future (a ‘specific deterrence effect’).3

On the other hand, severe punishment may have a negative effect on offenders who are incarcerated, weakening their already fragile links with society, nourishing negative networks, and, as a result, increasing the likelihood of future criminal activity (Di Tella and Schargrodsky 2013).

The Answer Requires Empirical Testing

The question of whether different types of custodial treatment affect recidivism must be tested empirically. But identifying a causal link between custody conditions and crime rates is challenging. In most cases, self-selection impedes establishing connections that are more than correlations: The most dangerous criminals are more likely to be sentenced to harsher custody conditions, and to reoffend in the future, precisely because they are more prone to criminal activity. Therefore, whether higher reoffending rates are driven by harsher custody conditions or by the offenders’ higher propensity to reoffend cannot be distinguished.

The complexity of identification is exacerbated by the difficulty in accessing micro-level data on offenders, which is necessary to isolate specific deterrence effects and to determine the causal link between the harsh conditions of a custodial system and the offenders’ propensity to be reconvicted.

Our Knowledge So Far

In recent years, researchers have gained access to better data and pushed the frontiers of knowledge through carefully constructed quasi-experiments. But the evidence is still mixed, mainly due to the difference in punitive treatments analysed, targeted populations, and time windows in which offenders are observed: It is hard to draw conclusions from few and diverse studies.

While a few papers find evidence of at least some deterrent effects (Lee and McCrary 2017, Hjalmarsson 2009, Katz et al. 2003),4 another stream of researchers finds the opposite, with some cases suggesting that harsh treatment increases the likelihood of recidivism (Aizer and Doyle 2015, Chen and Shapiro 2007, Drago et al. 2011), and that more rehabilitative facilities can have deterrent effects (Mastrobuoni and Terlizzese 2019).

The British Quasi-Experiments

Three quasi-experiments from the 1980s and 1990s in England and Wales – together with access to the criminal records of 6,444 offenders who experienced different custody treatments – offer the perfect setting to test whether harsher or rehabilitative incarceration practices decrease recidivism rates among young people, as I describe in more detail in a new paper (Lotti 2020).

Experiment 1: At the beginning of the 1980s, offenders younger than 21 who were given a custodial sentence were then sent to youth custody and detention centres managed as more punitive facilities than previously had been the case. Thus, young offenders held there experienced a tougher regime than usual.

Experiments 2 and 3: Towards the end of the decade and in the 1990s, these tough regimes were abolished and turned into young offender institutions oriented towards rehabilitation. Offenders younger than 21 were now sentenced to more rehabilitative facilities.

While prisons did not experience a change in regime throughout the period examined, youth custody facilities did. This setup allows me to compare the effects on recidivism from experiencing a milder/harsher custody, as the only reason offenders were sent to the more punitive/rehabilitative type of custody was their age at court appearance. Hence, I adopt a fuzzy regression discontinuity design and exploit the plausibly exogenous variation in the age at which offenders appeared in court, which in turn determined the type of custody they were sentenced to.

I find that young offenders at the margin of the age cut-off who are exposed to the harsher youth facilities are 27% more likely to reoffend in the eight years subsequent to their custody; commit on average nearly three offences more than offenders who experienced prison; and are brought to court on average 1.5 times more. The crimes committed by young offenders exposed to a harsher regime also appear to be more serious, such as violent offences, thefts, and criminal damage.

Keeping young offenders separate from their older peers in prison is beneficial only if the purpose of the offenders’ custody is rehabilitative.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    As a teenager I did volunteer work with young offenders and I recall even then being told about numerous studies indicating that rehabilitation projects were almost all far more cost effective than prison for all but the most hard core or violent criminals. The evidence for this is pretty much overwhelming, but for obvious reasons, there is always political counter pressures.

    That said, the Irish Industrial Schools system in the mid-20th Century, which was based on giving education and skills to ‘problem’ juveniles (petty criminals and orphans) rather than lock them up, was notoriously brutal and probably counterproductive, so rehabilitation must be meaningful rather than just a tag attached to an existing program.

    I don’t think there is any proof, but its hard not too think that a key reason for very low crime rates in countries such as Japan and south Korea are down to the plentiful supply of work for all skill levels. In Japan, they even help ex Yakuza with fake fingers (severed fingers and visible tats being a key visible indicator of gang membership) in order to make sure they can get work when they leave prison. Its often ascribed to culture, but in fact Japan had a huge social order and crime problem in the immediate post-war years.

    1. Basil Pesto

      also of course, in (as Lambert would have it, first world – ) Scandinavia, their prisons are a touch more refined

      Those countries of course have long been held up as examples of more enlightened prisons, usually in one-and-done clickbaity ‘look at those wacky Scandis!! it’ll never catch on!’ style pieces in liberal media outlets. (a web search of ‘prisons in Scandinavia’ will yield much more information on the topic)

      Criminology, besides being fascinating in its own right, is underdiscussed and undervalued in the public sphere in general, I think.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        It says everything that probably the most widely read book that discusses criminology was by economists – Freakanomics. And of course it got most things wildly wrong.

  2. David in Santa Cruz

    Why do people commit criminal acts in the first place? There is too much focus on hand-wringing when the horse has already left the barn. Being “punitive” or “rehabilitative” is asking the wrong question.

    Inclusive social economies with strong support for child-rearing and education, along with cradle-to-grave income and health care, well-compensated work at all skill levels, even income distribution, and strong cultural cohesion tend to have less crime and better outcomes.

    Yes, there are persons in the world who suffer from compulsions which are physically harmful to others who should be quarantined away. But most “crime” is the result of social exclusion and hopelessness.

    1. Ford Prefect

      The rest of the developed world has far lower incarceration rates than the US and also has less crime. Fewer people wih jail time and more social safety net and support systems appears to result in a more stable society with less crime and recidivism.

      I have always wondered if it is the Puritanical background in the US where everybody is presumed to be a sinner with little hope of redemption along with the racism associated with slavery and Jim Crow combined to create a cultural construct of simply throwing lots of people in prison while instructing the lower class to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, not realizing that the original thought behind that phrase was sarcasm.

      People of high social value (e.g. many white collar executives) are presumed to be inherently good, and so their laws are written so that the state has to demonstrate criminal intent in order to convict them. For the lower classes, they are presumed to be inherently bad, so mere existence of an act or object is sufficient to convict. Proof of intent is irrelevant, except in determining the magnitude of the sentence.

    2. ex-PFC Chuck

      I was deeply impressed with Richard Rhodes’ book Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist . While much of the book is about the protagonist Lonnie Athens’ head-butting with Sociology’s strongly positivistic establishment, much of it discusses Athens’ hypotheses. The following are notes I took when reading the book about fifteen years ago:

      Lonnie Athens’ Four Step Violentization Process Hypothesis
      A “few simple assumptions” (p 111)
      1. “ . . people are what they are as a result of the social experiences they have undergone in their lives.” Most are trivial, but some are “consequential and unforgettable” and “have a lasting impact” and “are remembered weeks, months, and years” afterward.
      2. “the significant experiences which make people dangerous violent criminals do not occur all at once in their lives, but occur gradually over time.” Since “later social experiences often build upon earlier experiences,” it is reasonable to conclude that “they must form some sort of developmental process with discernible stages.” “This development process is probably not preordained. The earlier stages might make the later stages possible, but not inevitable.” “. . it may be that many more people start upon the process than finish it.”
      3. “ . . it is far better to study fifty people in depth than 5,000 people superficially.” “He cites the authoritative text The Art of Scientific Investigation, by English veterinary pathologist, W. I. Beveridge, which notes that ;more discoveries have arisen from intense observation of very limited material than from statistics applied to large groups.’”

      Hypothesis based on interviews of fifty prisoners at federal and state prisons in Kansas, circa 1982-83. Each prisoner interviewed for 7-9 hours over 2-3 sessions. Two subgroups: Eight older, “ultraviolent offenders – men with at least three convictions for serious violent crimes”, to be contrasted with a “younger group of thirty incipiently violent offenders who ranged in age from early to late teens” who’d all been convicted of a serious violent crime and who “candidly admitted committing previous violent acts of varying gravity for which they were able to escape conviction or even arrest.” Athens had originally assumed the younger offenders hadn’t “completed the social process whatever it was . . “ Later he discovered that his assumption “was almost totally wrong,” including the cases of offenders as young as fourteen. (p 101-103)

      Step One – Brutalization Consists of three elements. All three “involve in their own way people undergoing coarse and cruel treatment at the hands of others that produces a lasting and dramatic impact upon the subsequent course of their lives. The ‘others’ are “members of the subject’s primary group defined as characterized by regular face-to-face interaction and intimate familiarity, e.g. family, gang or clique [members]”
      Violent Subjugation – Coercive subjugation occurs when “bona fide or would-be authority figures from . . [a] primary use violence or force [or the threat thereof] [on the subject] to submit to their authority in the present.” “Although brutal, the subject retains a measure of control – submission ends coercion. Retaliatory is for past disobedience or perceived present disrespect and is typically more relentless. Perceived lack of any control by subject can lead to a numbing effect followed when it’s finally over by humiliation and then rage. Perpetrator of retaliatory subjugation seeks permanent submission, vs the momentary submission that is the objective of the coercive variety.
      Personal Horrification – Occurs when the subject witnesses a close member of the primary group (e.g. mother, sibling, peer gang member) undergoing violent subjugation. ‘Witness’ means seeing and/or hearing. Hearing alone can be more upsetting since imagination kicks in. Subjugator usually, but not always, from subject’s primary group. Just as traumatizing as violent subjugation psychologically.
      Violent Coaching – Subject is assigned the role of violent novice by someone (usually older) in his primary group who assigns himself to the role of violent coach. Coaching is usually, but not always, informal and implicit. Coach must be credible to subject, perceiving him to be or have been violent actor. Subject taught that violence is a personal responsibility in some situations that can’t be avoided. Seldom taught specifics. Coaching conveys that harm should be done, not how to do it. Counterpart of ‘learned helplessness.’ Various techniques used: vainglorious story telling; ridicule via invidious comparison of subject with coach; haranguing, ranting & raving without belittling subject; and besiegement, combining some of all of the above except haranguing. Coaching by overkill.

      Step 2 – Belligerancy: Begins by redirecting subject’s pain at the question of ‘Why have I not?’ to ‘What can I do.’ Subject he must find way to stop people from brutalizing him. Resolves to use serious violence but only if provoked and if he thinks he has a chance of prevailing. A ‘deeply emotion-laden resolution.’ Subject’s [initial] violent performance always problematic regardless of the provocation, and its outcome is as influential as the degree of provocation.

      Step 3 – Violentization: Eventually the ‘What can I do?’ question leads to an attempt at Violent Performance. Initially it may not go as anticipated, in fact usually not. But if subject keeps trying eventually it does and he feels a rush of empowerment. Perhaps he has learned to pick his battles such that he seldom bites off more than he can chew, thus advancing up the learning curve of violent performance.

      Step 4 – Violent virulence. “The newly violent subject ‘undergoes a drastic change.’ He becomes ‘overly impressed with his violent performances and ultimately with himself in general. Filled with feelings of exultancy, he concludes that since he performed this fiolent feat, there is no reason w hy he cannot perform even more impressive violent feats in the future. The subject much too hastily draws the conclusion that he is now invincible.’ His notoriety at the same time makes it unlikely t hat others will disabuse him of that conclusion. He becomes increasingly pugnacious, ‘to the point where he will without the slightest hesitation strongly rebuke anyone who would foolishly criticize him.’” . . He proceeds to make a new violent resolution, far more encompassing than his previous mitigated commitment. ‘He now firmly resolves to attack people physically with the serious intention of gravely harming or even killing them for the slightest or no provocation whatsoever.’ Such a resolution moves him from defense to offense.”

  3. JEHR

    We had a conservative PM a few years ago and he went about changing our prison system: he closed a farming area that was run by the inmates of a prison. He sold the cows they milked and got rid of all the other chores a farm requires. He doubled up prisoners in their cells meant to hold fewer inmates. When we voted him out, the farm reopened but we still haven’t given the prisoners the space they need. My question: why does a leader do such a thing?

    1. Synoia

      1. Because there is much latent Sadism in the world.
      2. Any money spent to rehabilitate felons could be spent elsewhere (in tax cuts for the Rich and Connected)

    2. urblintz

      The cruelty and malice of partisan political ideology knows no end and is de rigueur for most leadership positions. Here in the grand ol’ USA partisans choose to forget that both sides play the game and why Clintonism is such a brutal instrument, from Bill’s crime bill to Pelosi’s “pay-go” and all the malign votes during Joe Biden’s 40 year career as a political fraud. One need look no further than the two asshats running for president to know these people – these “leaders” – are essentially evil. Trump is the more obvious evil, but should Biden win he’ll be the more effective one.

  4. SD

    Before we start talking about “offenders,” we need a foundational analysis of the structural inequities of the criminal punishment system in the United States–and it is the states that do the vast majority of criminal punishment in this country, not the federal system. American exceptionalism comes in many forms, one of which is our brutal system of criminal punishment and imprisonment of our citizens. I’m surprised to see this work featured on NC.

  5. Mummichog

    That article never mentions finance or financial criminals. Nickel-Dime Crime is not the problem.

    These folk who study Crime apparently never heard of the Trillions looted from the US Treasury going back at least to the Iraq WMD fraud, through 2008 Bailout of the Financial Criminals, continuing and now, of course, the Covid19 approved lootings and plunderings including those by Big Pharma.

    Is this because these Trillions are Government facilitated and approved lootings or because the Government chooses not to investigate or prosecute? If no prosecution, ergo no crime?

    And it is extremely ironic that there is no Legal Leading Light or Prosecutor or Judge who would dare to even address this Trillions Dollar Elephant In The Legal Room. This Omerta, an organized crime term, is there for all to see. The Godfather, if alive, would live sumptuously in the Hamptons with his dearest associates aurrounding him.

    So, recidivism for Financial Criminals is not a problem; rather they just improve their criminal techniques and expand their looting.

  6. juliania

    “Towards the Mountain”, an autobiographical work by Alan Paton, author of “Cry the Beloved Country” tells in detail of his employment in a South African prison, as only he could tell it. Obviously such merciful treatment is not only of benefit to the incarcerated, but to their minders as well. Trickle up.

  7. Tom Stone

    I did volunteer work in the Sonoma County jails for 15 years.
    The vast majority of the inmates I encountered had substance abuse or mental health issues, often both.
    Would rehab be a better and cheaper alternative for most?
    would a more equitable society reduce the need for jails and prisons drastically?
    Is that going to happen in the USA?
    Maybe a week after hell freezes over but I wouldn’t bet on it.

    1. LawnDart

      Tom Stone–

      I worked state parole and later in mental health as part of a diversionary program from jail.

      would a more equitable society reduce the need for jails and prisons drastically?

      You’re damn right– +100

  8. LawnDart

    The City of Chicago did an excellent job initiating a program (a “reintegration” program) to assist “ex-offenders” (recently-released state parolees) in the early 2000’s via the IETC (Illinois Employment and Training Centers/”the unemployment office”), particularly through the efforts of Oswaldo Rangel and the staff of the Pilsen IETC and a very, very diverse network of social service providers that could address or assist in fulfilling basic needs: food, clothing, shelter, work-clothes, a place to do laundry, transit tokens, counseling, laundry, phone-fax-email, and jobs– things that will take a person dependent on charity or whatever welfare that may be available and help them to become independent, self-sufficient and responsible members of society.

    Initially, the city did not recognize the sheer magnitude of parolees returning to its jurisdiction, but that changed: it was realized by the PTB that they either could try to assist, coach and mentor returning prisoners or just leave them to their own devices, fall back to the life that they knew.

    It’s a royal pain-in-the-butt to try to rebuild your life after release– very difficult. And helping to get someone on the right track is something of mutual benefit; less victims of crime and societal costs, and a person who can grow, move on, and put their past behind them and lead a materially better life.

    Is it better to interact with a person who has hope and a belief that their future will be better, or one who only sees darkness ahead and feels that they have nothing to lose? I think that it’s best that they can actually make a choice: legitimate opportunities to better yourself or the street life– you choose.

    This was a program that formed organically and by need, not one of intentional design. It seemed to work, and I hope that efforts have been made to keep it alive, although I don’t know if it still exists today or what form it may have taken. The principles of this program, the articulation, was much informed by S.I. Hayakawa’s “Language and Thought in Action,” which I give a strongly recommended “read” if one has not done so already.

  9. The Rev Kev

    Maybe going off tangent here but that video got my ire up as when you get down to it, those prisoners were just people and most people will try to do the right thing. They are not bogy men. Have seen others like it where other prisoners have saved a prison officer’s life when he was attacked by another inmate. If they had hated that officer, they would have simply sat back in their cells and said afterwards ‘I saw nuffin’.’ Humphrey Bogart once showed how this is done-

    The problem is to separate the career crims with those that made a mistake and and be set back on course after their release. Punishing prisoners after their release to me is like those people that love being able to tip in a restaurant as they can reward or punish a server because they have the power and can use it.

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