The Impacts of Incarceration on Crime

143 Pages Posted: 9 Jul 2020

Date Written: September 25, 2017


This paper reviews the research on the impacts of incarceration on crime. Where data availability permits, reviewed studies are replicated and reanalyzed. Among three dozen studies I reviewed, I obtained or reconstructed the data and code for eight. Replication and reanalysis revealed significant methodological concerns in seven and led to major reinterpretations of four. I estimate that, at typical policy margins in the United States today, decarceration has zero net impact on crime outside of prison. That estimate is uncertain, but at least as much evidence suggests that decarceration reduces crime as increases it. The crux of the matter is that tougher sentences hardly deter crime, and that while imprisoning people temporarily stops them from committing crime outside prison walls, it also tends to increase their criminality after release. As a result, “tough-on-crime” initiatives can reduce crime in the short run but cause offsetting harm in the long run. A cost-benefit analysis finds that even under a devil’s advocate reading of this evidence, in which incarceration does reduce crime in U.S., it is unlikely to increase aggregate welfare.

Keywords: incarceration; crime; evidence review

Suggested Citation

Roodman, David, The Impacts of Incarceration on Crime (September 25, 2017). Available at SSRN: or

David Roodman (Contact Author)

Open Philanthropy ( email )

182 Howard Street #225
San Francisco, CA 94105
United States


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