In popular lore — movies, books and blogs — criminals who go to prison don't come out reformed. They come out worse.
Scientists who have attempted to empirically analyze this theory have reached mixed conclusions, with analyses suggesting that activities like drug addiction or gangs are what determines whether the correctional system actually gets criminals to correct their ways.
What else could be at work?
Donald T. Hutcherson II, a sociology professor at Ohio University in Lancaster, recently decided to tackle the question by mining the vast data in the U.S. government's National Longitudinal Survey of Youth.
The survey conducts incredibly detailed and confidential interviews, and then repeats those interviews with the same people year after year — often going to extraordinary lengths to track down those who may have moved overseas or ended up in prison.
Included in the survey are questions about how much money individuals make legally and illegally. Because the survey also ascertains whether people have spent time in prison, Hutcherson pored through data from tens of thousands of queries to a large number of young people to establish whether illegal earnings went up or down after individuals served time.
If prison reformed criminals, illegal earnings once people were released ought to have gone down. But if prison was a "finishing school" for criminals, illegal earnings after serving time should have increased.
"Spending time in prison leads to increased criminal earnings," Hutcherson says. "On average, a person can make roughly $11,000 more [illegally] from spending time in prison versus a person who does not spend time in prison."
As to the process by which this happens, he says, "You come in [to prison]. You're 16, 17, 18 years old. You're looking around and you're thinking, 'Listen, I can learn from these seasoned veterans.' And that's exactly what you do. ... Basically, you are spending a lot of time around other criminals, seasoned veterans who know the lay of the land, and they can teach you the mechanisms — ways to get away with crime."
Because the study looks at averages, it's important to note that Hutcherson isn't saying that all criminals come out of prison primed to become bigger criminals. Lots of people, obviously, come out determined to lead law-abiding lives.
Hutcherson pointed to the role of social networks in all of our lives. In the legal economy, being connected to influential people — via networking — is widely seen as a way to get ahead on the ladder.
The same phenomenon appeared to be at work in the illegal economy as well. "You would think that being punished, serving time in prison, for young people would be a deterrent," Hutcherson says. "But look at it this way. When you leave prison, who are you going to hang out with? You're not going to all of a sudden join the chess club."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
OK, let's remember a couple of facts. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. One of many reasons we imprison so many people is to deter crime. And yet at the same time, there's a debate - has been for many years, in fact - about whether prison actually deters crime.
NPR's Shankar Vedantam has been looking into this, and has some research that relates to the topic. Shankar, welcome back to the program.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Thanks, Steve.
INSKEEP: OK, what do you have?
VEDANTAM: Well, you know, Steve, like on many issues, Americans are deeply divided about prison reform. A 2011 Pew survey found that half of all Americans - or close to half - thought that too many people were in prison. At the same time, another half of Americans thought the prison population was about the right size, or could even expand. Now, there have been lots of studies looking at what effect prison has on your legal earnings. There's lots of research that suggests that once you come out from prison, it's hard to find a job, hard to...
INSKEEP: Sure. People ask, have you ever been convicted of a crime? You could lose a job.
VEDANTAM: Exactly. What there hasn't been a lot of is hard evidence on what happens to your illegal earnings when you come out of prison. In other words, you go to jail, you come out; do you end up making more money from illegal activities, or less?
I spoke with Donald Hutcherson. He's a sociologist at Ohio University. He's conducted this national, quantitative analysis using the U.S. government's National Longitudinal Survey; huge survey - 46,000 interviews; 8,000 adolescents and young people, over nine years. And here's what Hutcherson told me he's founded.
DONALD HUTCHERSON: Spending time in prison leads to increased criminal earnings. On average, a person can make roughly $11,000 more from spending time in prison versus a person who does not spend time in prison.
INSKEEP: OK. This is bothersome, Shankar, because there have been people in this very studio talking about the value of college and saying that over a lifetime, you can earn so many more dollars if you go to college. You're telling me that prison is like college. It increases your possibilities for the future.
VEDANTAM: (LAUGHTER) Well, it does put you in jeopardy of going to prison again because this is involve - this is illegal activities. Now, the study actually cannot answer the question, why illegal work would become more lucrative. Hutcherson tells me there are a couple of different explanations. One possibility is gangs. So there has been intersecting research that shows you're more likely to be part of a gang, if you've spent time in prison; and it could be that being part of a gang is what leads to higher illegal earnings.
INSKEEP: More organized crime, OK.
VEDANTAM: Right. But Hutcherson basically says the bottom line is, the study seems to be providing hard, empirical evidence for a commonly held belief that prison essentially serves as a finishing school for criminals.
HUTCHERSON: You come in; you're 16, 17, 18 years old; you're looking around and you're thinking, listen, I can learn from these seasoned veterans. And that's exactly what you do.
VEDANTAM: Now, he's a sociologist. He studies something called social capital; which is, how do your ties to other people shape your behavior, and shape your outcomes. Now, most of the research on social capital so far, is focused on the legal world. You know, we all know it's good to network at parties because that can lead to contacts, and lead to a better job. And what this study suggests is that the same thing happens in the illegal world as well.
HUTCHERSON: You would think that serving time in prison, for young people, would be a deterrent. But look at it this way: When you leave prison, who are you going to hang out with? You're not going to all of a sudden join the chess club.
INSKEEP: This is reminding me of some other research you've brought us recently - because you've told us about the fact that high school students at a high school where lots of people in the past have gone to Harvard or Princeton, are more likely to go to some upscale college like that. You're telling me the opposite here - that if you spend a lot of time with people in prison, you're more likely to make use of those connections; and they may be the only connections that you have.
VEDANTAM: I think that's a really insightful point, Steve, because you're exactly right. Even though these are going in opposite directions, in terms of being positive or negative to society, the same sociological principle is at work. Whom you hang out with makes a huge difference to who you become.
INSKEEP: So how are we, as citizens, supposed to take this? Because surely, people do not want criminals to just walk away from crimes and not go to prison.
VEDANTAM: Well, Hutcherson told me that there has been growing interest among both liberals and conservatives, in the question of prison reform. Debates about prison used to be about the morality of crime, or the morality of prison. Increasingly, he says, both liberals and conservatives are asking the question: What's our return on investment? In other words, it costs tens of thousands to keep somebody in prison for a year. If they come out and they're a worse criminal, how good an investment is it?
INSKEEP: NPR's Shankar Vedantam, thanks very much.
VEDANTAM: Thanks, Steve.
INSKEEP: You can find him on Twitter @HiddenBrain. You can also find me @NPRinskeep, and find this program @MORNING EDITION.
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