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Incarceration and Desistance: Evidence from a Natural Policy Experiment

NCJ Number
Date Published
26 pages

This study examined states’ attempt to slow the rate of incarceration and decrease the size of the incarcerated population.


In this study, the authors studied the growing number of states attempting to slow the growth in incarceration and decrease the size of the incarcerated population. Some efforts seek to divert individuals convicted for nonviolent offenses from incarceration entirely while others seek to reduce time sentenced or time served among those sentenced to incarceration. More than 30 states have adopted sentencing reforms since 2007. As of 2020, the nation has experienced a 25% decline in the prison population since its peak in 2009. During the same period, the nation has witnessed a 32% decline in crime rates, raising the possibility that the decreased use of prison does not decrease public safety. The fundamental issue is that diversion may be considered insufficiently punitive and so such policies may be more limited in scope versus shorter sentence lengths. As a result, sentence length reductions might have a larger impact with respect to reducing the incarcerated population and related costs. Among the few rigorous studies that consider the dose-response effect of incarceration, some studies find a null effect while others find a negative association between length of incarceration and recidivism – that is, longer sentences are associated with somewhat lower recidivism. 

Date Published: January 1, 2022