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Imprisonment and Reoffending (from Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, Volume 38, P 115-200, 2009, Michael Tonry, ed., - See NCJ-242171)

NCJ Number
Daniel S. Nagin; Francis T. Cullen; Cheryl Lero Jonson
Date Published
86 pages

This essay examines the effect of incarceration on reoffending.


Imprisonment is the most severe punishment in democratic societies except for capital punishment, which is used only in the United States. Crime prevention is its primary rationale. Imprisonment may affect reoffending in various ways. It may be reduced by some combination of rehabilitation and what criminologists call specific deterrence. Sound arguments can be made, however, for a criminogenic effect (e.g., due to antisocial prison experiences or to stigma endured upon release). Remarkably little is known about the effects of imprisonment on reoffending. The existing research is limited in size, in quality, in its sights into why a prison term might be criminogenic or preventative, and in its capacity to explain why imprisonment might have differential effects depending on offenders' personal and social characteristics. Compared with noncustodial sanctions, incarceration appears to have a null or mildly criminogenic effect on future criminal behavior. This conclusion is not sufficiently firm to guide policy generally, though it casts doubt on claims that imprisonment has strong specific deterrent effects. The evidence does provide a basis for outlining components of an agenda for substantive and policy relevant research. (Published Abstract)