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Prison vs. probation: Equally effective at crime prevention?

Those opposed to criminal justice reform often cite worries that reducing incarceration among violent offenders would be dangerous. This argument rests on the assumption that putting violent offenders in prison is more effective at preventing future crime than other forms of crime prevention. But is that true?

Researchers for a University of California, Berkeley, study reported surprising findings on that question. They compared the recidivism rates of two groups: those sentenced to prison and those sentenced to probation for similar crimes. The comparison revealed that sentencing people to prison doesn't reduce recidivism compared to a sentence of probation.

People on probation are no more likely to reoffend

The researchers examined the post-release criminal records of over 100,000 people who had been convicted of crimes in Michigan between 2003 and 2006. The defendants were chosen because they had committed violent felonies for which a judge had the discretion to sentence them to either prison or probation. This methodology excluded people convicted of crimes where probation was not an option, such as rape or murder.

Following the defendants' activities through 2015, the researchers compared whether each group of defendants had committed a new violent crime within five years of their release from prison or supervision. They found that the harsher sentencing alternative did not reduce recidivism.

"Our study shows negligible public safety gains are made from imprisoning individuals who are eligible for probation," said the study's lead author.

"We are spending a lot of money on imprisonment for very little benefit in terms of public safety," he added. "Our findings show we could incarcerate fewer people convicted of violent crimes and invest the savings in other ways of preventing violence in society."

We are indeed spending a lot of money on imprisonment in the United States: tens of billions of dollars each year. At least 1.5 million people are being held in federal and state incarceration facilities in America, and about half are convicted of crimes designated as violent.

Other alternatives such as harm reduction strategies might give us more value per dollar spent. One example of such a strategy in violent crime cases might be to provide mental health services to the offender, or focusing on restorative justice, where the offender and the victim are brought together in an attempt at truth and reconciliation.

The UC Berkeley research was published online in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

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