Inmate Assistance Programs: Toward a Less Punitive and More Effective Criminal Justice System
61 Pages Posted: 25 Jul 2022 Last revised: 8 Nov 2023
Date Written: July 24, 2022
High recidivism rates in the United States are a well-known and disturbing problem. In this article, we explain how this problem can be mitigated in a cost-effective manner through reforms that make greater use of humane methods that help inmates rather than using more punitive measures.
We focus on Inmate Assistance Programs (IAPs) adopted by many states. Some of these programs provide inmates with valuable skill sets to utilize upon their release while others are geared towards treating mental health and substance use disorder problems. IAPs are likely to reduce recidivism by lowering ex-convicts’ need to resort to crime for income as well as reducing their likelihood of committing crimes impulsively under the influence of substances and mental disturbances. However, those who oppose IAPs quickly point out that they involve significant costs, and may reduce the general deterrence effects of criminal punishment. These objections are based on simple economic theories which suggest that IAPs can reduce general deterrence by providing inmates with benefits that partially off-set the expected costs of punishment. Thus, whether IAPs can be used in a cost-effective manner is an empirical question, whose answer depends on the trade-off between its recidivism reducing effects on the one hand, and its financial and potential general deterrence costs on the other.
Here, we provide the first empirical analysis of IAPs’ general deterrence effects after explaining why these effects are likely to be insignificant, or even positive, under a more complete economic theory which accounts for knowledge hurdles; discounting of future outcomes; impulsive behavior; loss aversion; and network effects. Our empirical analysis focuses on the impact of increased welfare benefits provided to certain inmates by states which chose to opt out of the 1996 federal ban under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). This act prevented drug offenders from using welfare benefits and food stamps. Using a difference-in-differences design, we find evidence supporting our theory, i.e., no statistically significant negative impact of states’ decisions to opt out of the PRWORA bans on the general deterrence of drug crimes.
Subsequently, we build on prior economic theories as well as our empirical observations to explain how the criminal justice reforms that use shorter imprisonment sentences and more frequent use of IAPs can reduce crimes as well as the costs of administering the criminal justice system. The cost savings from reducing sentences for repeat offenders can be used to finance IAPs without significantly affecting deterrence due to the ineffectiveness of lengthy imprisonment sentences. Thus, our analysis suggests IAPs can, in fact, be used in a cost-effective manner to reduce crime, and are valuable and humane tools that policy makers ought to consider as alternatives to punitive measures.
Keywords: Recidivism, rehabilitation, substance use disorder, mental health, crime, deterrence, imprisonment
JEL Classification: K00, K14, K42
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation