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Conviction, Incarceration and Recidivism: Understanding the Revolving Door

  • Series
  • Speaker(s)
    Aurelie Ouss (University of Pennsylvania, United States)
  • Field
    Empirical Microeconomics
  • Location
    Tinbergen Institute Amsterdam, room 1.01
  • Date and time

    February 14, 2023
    15:30 - 16:30

This paper examines the effects of conviction and incarceration on recidivism. We study felony cases in Virginia that are quasi-randomly assigned to judges. We first present estimates of the impact of conviction on recidivism based on 2SLS regressions with judge stringency instruments. If given a causal interpretation, our estimates would imply large and sustained increases in recidivism from receiving a felony conviction. In contrast, 2SLS estimates of the effect of incarceration would imply that incarceration reduces recidivism in the first year, likely due to incapacitation, but has no longer-term effects. Next, we discuss how, in multiple-treatment settings, some models of judge decision-making support the interpretation of the 2SLS estimands as causal effects for a particular margin (such as conviction vs dismissal, or incarceration vs conviction) while others do not. We then specify testable implications for the models we consider and check whether those implications hold in our data. We find that the data reject models that support a causal interpretation of the 2SLS estimands, and we characterize the resulting bias. Finally, we describe and implement an alternative identification strategy. This analysis yields estimates similar in sign and magnitude to those drawn based on the 2SLS estimates, although they are sometimes less precise. We conclude that conviction may be an important and potentially overlooked driver of recidivism, while incarceration mainly has shorter-term incapacitation effects.