Prompted by several American studies, all conducted in the state of Texas and showing that serving time in prison leads to relapse into crime and exclusion from working life, Professor Katrine Løken from the Department of Economics at the University of Bergen in Norway, and two colleagues from the University of Chicago, carried out the largest European study on imprisonment and recidivism to date.
Using datasets provided by Statistics Norway (SSB), which keeps tabs on the country’s entire population, and extensive records of all criminals in Norway, the team looked at all court decision between 2005 and 2009, for a total of 22,000 prisoners.
Connecting these datasets to the Norwegian legal data base, Lovdata, Løken was able to follow the fates of prisoners who committed the same crimes, but were sentenced to different penalties by different judges, thereby isolating the effect of prison time on future rates of recidivism.
“By focusing on the direct impact of a judge’s sentencing, we ended up with a better set of data, which told us much more about the effect of prison than most previous studies have been able to”.
Results showed that five years after conviction, offenders sentenced to prison were 27% less likely to commit new crimes than those who received more lenient penalties, such as probation or community service.
“The results show that the Norwegian prison model with extensive use of labour training while serving time gives surprisingly good results,” said Løken. For the 60% of inmates who had not been employed for the last five years preceding the conviction, the decline in criminal activity was even greater – about 46%.
Employed prisoners who lost their jobs due to a prison sentence, on the other hand, were not found to benefit from serving time, and did about as well as the other group once released.
According to Løken, while the study takes no stand on the principle of imprisonment, it does shed some light on its effects on people, and the outcomes of different sentencing.
“A relevant question is whether we should aim for full package of job-training outside prison. But research shows that work training outside of prison is more difficult to enforce. It appears that a certain element of coercion is needed to get offenders on a new track”.
The study is published as a working paper in Economics at the University of Bergen.