The Effects of Sentencing on Recidivism: Results from a Natural Experiment

20 Pages Posted: 10 Jul 2007

Date Written: July 5, 2007


Although defendants who are sentenced to prison are known to re-offend at higher rates than defendants who are not sentenced to prison, this correlation does not have a clear causal interpretation because variation in sentencing in part reflects variation the defendants' perceived criminal propensities. Taking advantage of the random assignment of judges to criminal cases, we analyze a natural experiment in which defendants are effectively sentenced at random. We estimate the effects of conviction and incarceration on the probability that 10,814 defendants who appeared in the Superior Court for the District of Columbia between 1978 and 1984 were recharged or reconvicted during a 13-year follow-up period. We find little evidence that incarceration reduces the probability of recidivism, as would be expected based on "specific deterrence" and "incapacitation" hypotheses.

Keywords: criminal justice, sentencing, recidivism, experiment

JEL Classification: C93, K14, K4

Suggested Citation

Berube, Danton Asher and Green, Donald P., The Effects of Sentencing on Recidivism: Results from a Natural Experiment (July 5, 2007). 2nd Annual Conference on Empirical Legal Studies Paper, Available at SSRN: or

Donald P. Green

Columbia University ( email )

7th Floor, International Affairs Bldg.
420 W. 118th Street
New York, NY 10027
United States

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