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Harsh or Human? Detention Conditions and Recidivism

Giovanni Mastrobuoni () and Daniele Terlizzese ()

No 1413, EIEF Working Papers Series from Einaudi Institute for Economics and Finance (EIEF)

Abstract: The question of how prison conditions affect recidivism is very important.In designing a prison system, one would want to know the answer. There are two prevailing prison regimes, harsh and humane. We estimate the effect on recidivism of replacing time served in a harsh, closed-cell prison with time served in a humane, open-cell one, mimicking an experiment where the time spent in the open-cell prison as opposed to the closed-cell one is randomly assigned. We deal with the endogenous assignment of inmates to different prison regimes using variation that is driven by nearby prisons’ overcrowding. Switching regimes for a year, which represent 60 percent of the average sentence, reduces recidivism by around 6 percentage points, or 15 percent, which is a large effect compared to most other interventions aimed at reducing recidivism. The effects are largest for inmates with very low levels of education and are weak for hardened criminals. More than a single mechanism underlies these effects.

Date: 2014, Revised 2018-05
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