At a courthouse in Seattle, Washington, defendants who plead guilty prior to trial are randomly assigned to a different sentencing judges. These judges, as you would expect, have a range of ideas about sentencing. Some are more likely to hand down prison time than others. The luck of the draw can have a great effect on a defendant, who is understandably hoping for a lenient judge. Moving from the most lenient judge to the harshest judge could double an offender’s sentence length.
This sentencing scheme is also fertile ground for researchers who want to study the effect of prison sentence length on recidivism. Michael Roach and Max Schanzenbach, professors of economics and law respectively, studied the sentencing variations in this courthouse. They found that “one-month extra prison sentence reduces the rate of recidivism by about one percentage point, with possibly larger effects for those with limited criminal histories.”
The authors caution that “extra prison time does not yield a statistically significant reduction in recidivism for offenders with more significant criminal histories. They also note that they only studied relatively short sentences. “The average sentence length in the data is nine months, and the median sentence is three months. Thus, the results pertain only to low-level offenders mostly convicted of non-violent property crimes.”
Even with these caveats, this study has broad application for prosecutors and judges at sentencing. Reducing recidivism is one of the chief goals of the criminal justice system. This study seems to provide a clear way to do it. Many defense attorneys believe that it is in the best interest of their client to obtain the shortest possible period of incarceration. This study proves that belief wrong in many cases. Judges should take note that they can rehabilitate a prisoner and reduce his recidivism rate simply by giving him more prison time at the outset. This approach is backed up by more than slogans like “tough love.” It’s now backed up by hard data. And in addition to its rehabilitative benefit, additional jail time also accomplishes the purposes of general deterrence and rehabilitation.
I hope the criminal justice system takes note of this data. Maybe we can improve the way we protect our communities while at the same time rehabilitating defendants.