Imprisonment and Recidivism Research Paper

Statement of the problem

The analyzed article was written by Cassia Spohn and David Holleran and is named “The effect of imprisonment on recidivism rates: a focus on drug offenders”. The main topic of the article is the post imprisonment behavior of the drug offenders.

Over the last 20 years the population of prisons increased dramatically. From one hand, it can be considered as the progress in the fight against crimes. However, from the other hand, one should admit that during the respective period of time many law reforms were conducted and most of them made the punishment for the majority of crimes (including drug legislation abuse) more severe. So the question arises: Did those laws have real effect on the problem solution or just increased the population of the prisons.

To answer that question the authors aim to examine the recidivism rate. In other words, the problem can be formulated as the inefficiency of the modern judicial system in the regard of illicit drug abusers. Is imprisonment the best solution and how efficient it is? How can both individual and the state benefit from the application of alternative solutions and how the recidivist rate can be calculated? (330-332)

Source of the problem

The article doesn’t deal with the source of the problem but rather researches the existence of the problem itself and, if it does, the possible ways of its solution.

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Significance of the problem

According to the research the problem has major impact on the performance of the judicial system and is major for modern society. According to the statistics given in the article, over last 20 years the amount of people imprisoned due to the violation of the drug related legislation increased 4 times. The question is, whether those people really should stay in prison and does it really affect crime rate. The scale of the problem is, to the large extend, determined by the high percentage of the imprisoned individuals that is constituted from the drug offenders and the rate of recidivism among them. As the consequence, it is necessary for the entire judicial system to determine the reason of increase in drug offense and find the best way to deal with the offenders. (330-332)

Feasibility of the problem for study

The study has all the necessary materials and the methodological base is developed for the research. Despite the fact that the study is unique in its specific course, the similar studies were already conducted in related fields and the authors were able to use the wide variety of related literature and methods that made the development of the new approach with the use of already existing research methods possible. Besides, the previous researches in the similar fields and in the same region developed substantial database that contributed strongly to the accuracy and efficiency of the research. (336)

Scope of the literature review

The study reviews around 60 sources that lie in the time period from the end of 40th to the early years of this decade. The sources are chosen properly and represent the works of crime theorists and researches in the field of punishment efficiency comparison. The sources used also provided the authors with necessary methodological tools that allowed the study to be conducted with necessary accuracy. It is also remarkable that since the period of time covered with by literature is so wide, the authors were able to pick the necessary tools and ideas for the research from a wide variety of well-known respected works. (353-357)

Theoretical context of the problem

According to the theory developed by Beccaria (1963) the crime is the result of the evaluation of present benefits and future risks. The theory states that the higher the probability of the future punishment is and the sooner it can happen the less likely the individual is to commit the crime. The theory also suggests that the punishment of one individual will become a restricting factor for the others. Using this theory the laws were developed to make the punishment more severe. However, the theory doesn’t seem to apply to the drug related crimes meaning that the severe punishment doesn’t prevent individuals from violation of the laws not only for the first time but as well in the future. It is hard to determine, whether the example of the imprisoned people is playing the role of prevention for the others, but it is fair to say that the rate of the recidivism in the field is rather concerning. Furthermore, the distinction should be made between those who were actually imprisoned and those who went through probation. The study also examines the question of the probation vs. imprisonment from the point of view of the efficiency. The theoretical concern in this field is that the probation might be a more efficient way to deal with the problem, since it encourages an individual to deal with the drug abuse and go through the treatment. (331-335)

Hypotheses / research questions

The study addresses several problems related to one topic. Since no studies were conducted in this particular field the researchers aim to answer following questions:

  • To compare the effect on future recidivism of both imprisonment and probation
  • Which punishment delays the time of recidivism most – probation or imprisonment
  • Is imprisonment a more efficient punishment for one type of crimes then the other.

The hypothesis behind the study is that the criminal behavior of drug law offenders is different from non-drug law offenders and that the first group should be treated specially. (336)

Variables of interest

Among the variables that are important for the study the following should be named:

  • Rate of imprisoned and put on probation for drug abuse
  • Rate of recidivism among those put on probation
  • Rate of recidivism among imprisoned
  • Follow up period when the recidivism takes place for both.

The study also takes into account the issues and role of gender, sex, employment situation and previous law offenses. (334-335)


Description of the design

The research was conducted Jackson County (Kansas City) for three main reasons:

  • The research on the influence of race on the crime rate had already been conducted so the data was available for the 1993 and was used for the current study
  • Second reason is that it is the only jurisdiction in the U.S. that has so called drug tax. The tax razes about $15 million every year and those money are put into the war with drugs, awareness programs etc.
  • The judicial system is very treatment oriented although is still strict for drug traffickers. It creates different opportunities for the drug addicts.

Those conditions formed the basis for the conduction of the accurate study that researched the influence of sentencing alternatives on the future drug offenses.

Using the previous researches data the offenders were selected and divided into several groups on the bases of different criteria. After that the framework of the recidivism criterion was established and the calculations using the methods mentioned below were conducted. (336-337)

Control of extraneous variables

The data used in the research went through the previous selection. As the result of that selection the cases when the offense was not recorded, the cases in which the offenders docket number and name were missing were singled out. The cases where the offenders were still incarcerated were also not taken into account by the researches. As the result the group of 1,077 offenders was formed. (338)

Assessing internal and external validity

Both the external and internal data is valid since all the data taken into account has direct influence on the future performance of the offender. There are tight statistic bonds between those factors taken into account and the recidivism rate. (338)

Sampling design

In order to conduct the research properly the authors used stratified sampling. They had to reevaluate the results of previous researches and divide the mentioned above group of 1,077 offenders into several new groups:

  • group 1 – the offenders who’s crimes were directly connected to the drug abuse of trafficking (drug offenders – 342).
  • group 2 involved offenders who either had a history of drug abuse or drug related crimes (drug-involved offenders – 274)
  • group 3 – the offenders who had neither drug addiction or drug related history.

Other criteria also were used to divide offenders into groups. Thus, it was of a great importance whether the offender was probated or imprisoned. This division was critical for the study since it allowed to determine the effect of either of punishments. Other issues like sex, race and employment status were also takes as the criteria for division. (338-338)

Measurement instruments

The measurement was conducted mostly by the comparison of the data selected with the sentencing study data file. The rate of recidivism was measured on the basis of many indicators and in included fallow up period from less then one to more then 5 years. As the criteria to determine the case as recidivism a new field charge was used. The recidivism was also measured as the time-to-failure rate meaning the determination of time before the new field charge takes place. (339)

Reliability and validity of those instruments

The method can be regarded as the reliable one since the criterion used in the evaluation of recidivism is one of the most objective ones.

The accuracy of the criterion is determined by its ability to exclude Type 1 and Type 2 errors. Type 1 error occurs when the arrest of the individual is considered as the recidivism while it is obvious that the individual can be released without standing in front of the court. Type 2 error occurs when the conviction is used as a measure. (339)

Sources of measurement error

It is likely that the possible source of the measurement error can be a data of the previous researches. It is not only the accuracy of data that can cause errors but also difficulties in comparing the results based on different fallow up periods. (338-340)

Ethical considerations

There are no major ethical considerations are present in the current research.

Data Analysis

Data analysis procedures

The logistic regression was used to analyze the three binary dependent variables. Time-to-failure rate was analyzed with the help of survival analysis that allowed to determine the possible significant statistical differences in various subgroups of offenders.

The analysis also took into account whether the offender was imprisoned or went through probation, type of offense (drug, drug-related or non-drug), gender, race, employment status, number of prior police records and age.

As the result of the analysis the “typical” criminal can be depicted and the possibility to calculate the future recidivist behavior is presented. (340-341)

Presentation of results; Use of tables

The results are presented by 3 tables and 2 figures that show the results from different prospective and establish the correlation between different types of crimes and punishments and different rates of recidivism. (341+)

Interpretation of results

According to the results presented in the tables the typical criminal is a 29-year-old black male, unemployed at the time of the arrest and already with one police record. The results on drug and non-drug related comparison shows that the rate of survival among non-drug related criminals is a bit higher then in case with drug related criminals. Comparing imprisonment and probation, one is sure to find out that for both drug and non-drug offenders the recidivism is lower by 20% when the individual was put on probation instead of being imprisoned. (342)

Communicating Findings

Discussion of findings

According to the results the inefficiency of the judicial system in the drug related issues is obvious. The research proves that the probation is a more efficient way of dealing with the crime problem then the actual imprisonment. That it is also the case with the drug related crimes. (342+)


Applying the results of this research one should remember that the results are based on the statistical methods and can deviate to some expand in the real life. One should also remember that the severity of the crime should be taken into account. It is also important that the probation and imprisonment have different influence on the different categories of offenders and should be applied respectively. (349-353)

Alternative explanations

Since the research is unique in its field there is no alternative explanations to its results.

Implications for the practitioner

The results of the research can be applied widely. Due to the fact that drug related crimes become more and more common in our society it is necessary to know how to deal with the problem. The research can help judges to understand the nature of the crime and the consequences of the punishment. The results would also allow to make the best decision for the particular case.

The results should also be a concern for the entire judicial system and should enhance the process of reformation in order to increase its efficiency and lower the amount of the taxpayers’ money that are spent on prisons. (352-353)

Implications for future research

Since the research is unique in the field, its implication for future researches can be estimated as wide and progressive. The results of the research as well as its methodology can be widely used in the same field by the other researches allowing to develop more accurate and objective system of judicial efficiency. (352-353)


Spohn, C. Holleran, D. 2002, The effect of imprisonment on recidivism rates: a focus on drug offenders. Criminology Vol. 40 #2 p. 329-358


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