Still Asking “What Works”: A Punishment Question for the Ages or an Aging Punishment Question?
The get-tough era that prevailed between 1980 and the early 2000s also witnessed an increase in research on deterrence, namely the study of the impact of the certainty and swiftness of sanctions on crime. Here too, definitive results on efficacy were elusive. Harkening back to the 1817 report of Sing Sing’s recommitment rates by time served and studies reviewed by Levin and many others, Orsagh and Chen reexamined the hypothesis that time served affects post-prison recidivism. They found that time served does affect recidivism, although, the direction of those effects varied by the social class of the inmate. Leading scholar Daniel Nagin later concluded that while evidence in favor of deterrence was firmer than it had been for two decades, large and important gaps in knowledge persisted.
The confounding relationship between deterrence-based strategies and recidivism was reaffirmed in a more recent synopsis of what is known about the effects of the certainty and severity of sanctions (i.e., deterrence theory). In this synopsis, Bushway and Paternoster concluded that it was “extremely difficult to determine whether instrumental goals are being met, and if met through what mechanism.” The recent study of a community supervision program known as Project HOPE appears to bear further witness to this equivocal conclusion. The initial study of HOPE used a randomized design and found that swift and certain, but not severe, responses to parole violations led to fewer future violations, arrests, and reimprisonment. This celebrated finding inspired 160 program replications across the United States. Two ensuing randomized studies of HOPE involving a total of five sites found no evidence of effectiveness. These findings were succeeded by a fourth quasi-experimental study that found evidence of positive effects.