Evidence Based Policy? Throw Away The Keys!

by endlesspsych

By Keir Liddle

Ken Clarke has recently taken the following stance on prison populations:

“There is and never has been, in my opinion, any direct correlation between spiralling growth in the prison population and a fall in crime,” he said. “Crime fell throughout most of the western world in the 1990s. Crime fell in countries that had, and still have, far lower rates of imprisonment than ours.

“Crime has fallen in Britain throughout a period of both rising prison populations and throughout the same period of economic growth, with strong employment levels and rising living standards.”

He also hinted at economic stability, growth and employment as being the real reasons for a decline in crime, rather than the hardline stance as favoured by previous Home Secretaries on both sides of the political spectrum. The Justice Secretary’s statement has met with some resistance from those, within his own party, who clearly want to be see as a party that is tough on crime.

The Tory Shadow Justice Secretary John Lamont MSP made his views clear, and they are at odds with Clarke’s pronouncement:

“Everyone knows the best way to fight crime is better rehabilitation and we believe that this rehabilitation can start in jail. You don’t cut crime by cutting the prison population; you cut the prison population by cutting crime.”

Among more “heavyweight” opposition against the policy, there’s  David Davis:

“Prison may be expensive but it’s less expensive than the alternative which is rising crime in the community which does much more harm.  You could end up with a false economy. It is perfectly right to have the debate but let’s not jump to conclusion.”

Davis believes that reducing the prison population via the use of more community sentencing is simply designed to save money… but what does the research say?

In 2008, Avanash Singh Bhati and Alex R. Piquero published a paper called “Estimating the Impact of Incarceration on Subsequent Offending Trajectories: Deterrent, Criminogenic or Null Effect”.  Their paper notes that, despite record levels of incarceration, and discussion of the extent to which it is an effective deterrent or means of reducing crime, there doesn’t exist a sound knowledge base about whether incarceration lowers, raises or has no effect on crimes rates.

They compared three criminological theories — the deterrence perspective, the labelling perspective and the defiance perspective. In this post, I shall consider the deterrence perspective and the labelling perspective.

The ‘deterrence perspective’ is a reasonably straightforward and classic perspective. It suggests that effectively punished individuals are expected to view the threat of sanctions as more salient, and thus be deterred from subsequent criminal activity. The research base that supports this theory is far from conclusive; however, it does seem to suggest that the certainty of punishment exhibits a small but significant deterrent effect.

The ‘labelling perspective’ is contrary to this view, and suggests that punishment is expected to lead to continued criminal activity because offenders become “labelled” as criminals or delinquents or they otherwise reinforce a criminal role. This can be as a consequence of pro-social pathways being severed, which leaves the offender with few options other than to maintain a criminal lifestyle. The evidence for the labelling hypothesis is also mixed; although some recent research has found evidence for indirect labelling effects.

The evidence for and against the deterrence or labelling perspectives of incarceration come from many sources: a study by Laub and Sampson found that incarceration as a juvenile or young adult has a negative effect on later job stability, and this related to continued involvement in crime. Another by Rosenfeld et al, looking at recidivism statistics, found that in the cases of drug, violent and property offences, prior criminal involvement was associated with recidivism, and that ex-prisoners had a small but non-trivial impact on crime rates. They found that the number of months served in prison was not associated with the incidence of rearrest. They also examined the net impact of incarceration on crime rates, and found that former inmates contribute to a “net” increase in offences. Nieuwbeerta et al found that first-time imprisonment led to an increase in criminal activity in the three years following release across different ages and types of crime.

These studies would seem to lend credence to Clarke’s statements. However, it is important to note that the jury regarding the effects of incarceration on subsequent offending behaviour is still very much out, and that punishment experiences such as incarceration have highly varied effects on offenders. A major issue, common to much policy research, is that almost no studies involve any random assignment procedure. This is understandable ethically, but it does leave researchers attempting to answer difficult questions almost with one hand tied behind their backs.

Quite how could that aspect of the research be addressed within acceptable ethical bounds? Could you really  release one prisoner under one system of incarceration and another under a different setting due to nothing more than a coin flip? One might have difficulty referring to the prison system as part of the justice system doing so…

On balance I think Clarke’s position has merit, although there is research that suggests community based or suspended sentences may not actually reduce the need for incarceration. Weatherburn and Bartels (2008) in a British Journal of Criminology paper, “The Recidivism of Offenders Given Suspended Sentences in New South Wales Australia”, have pointed out that suspended sentences have been described as a “sword of Damocles”, a means of exploiting the deterrent effects of prison while avoiding its human and financial costs. However, they found no difference in recidivism in cases in which suspended sentences were used to that of supervised bonds.

So it seems that while Clarke’s position may have merit, and some support from social research and criminology, a lot depends on what he proposes to replace prison sentences with. What are the details of the alternatives proposed?

A lot of thought is required to get the system right for the criminals, the victims and society at large.

AVINASH SINGH BHATI & ALEX R. PIQUERO (2008). Estimating the Impact of incarceration on subsequent offending trajectories: Deterrent, crimogenic or null effect? THE JoLfRNAL OF CRIMINAL L A W * CRIMINOLOGY, 1 (98), 207-253