Decriminalizing the Poor: The Effects of Short-Term Incarceration on Human Life

NOMIS Research Project

Incarcerated populations have skyrocketed in most parts of the world over the past decades. Worldwide, more than 10 million people are kept in penal institutions, either as pre-trial detainees or after being sentenced. Rigorous scientific evidence on the effects of incarceration is scant. The existing criminological and sociological literature, while lengthy, relies almost entirely on observational data and lacks evidence on the psychological, social and economic mechanisms underlying the effects of imprisonment on future crime and societal re-integration. Identifying the causal effects of incarceration has proven challenging because of the many unobservable external factors (such as pre-existing differences in personality and criminal attitudes) that threaten the validity of a comparison between incarcerated and non-incarcerated people.

The project Decriminalizing the Poor: The Effects of Short-Term Incarceration on Human Life is a randomized controlled trial (RCT) designed to identify the causal effects of incarceration. The field experiment will work with an undercapitalized bail fund to randomize people who otherwise would not be able to post bail out of pre-trial detention and therefore out of incarceration. This methodology will allow the research team to determine the social and economic consequences of incarceration.

A full randomized evaluation would break new ground by providing rigorous scientific evidence on one of the most fundamental, and yet unresolved, questions in criminology and sociology: the social and economic consequences of incarceration. The project design includes use of new survey technologies that implement interdisciplinary methods from psychology and behavioral economics to explore the underlying psychological, social and economic mechanisms through which incarceration might affect people’s lives in the short- and long-term. From a public policy perspective, the results of the complete RCT would contribute to the active debate about whether the criminal justice system exacerbates social and economic inequality and whether this is a necessary price for historically low levels of crime.

This research project is jointly led by James (Jim) Greiner, professor of public law at Harvard Law School (Cambridge, US), and Michel Maréchal, professor of economics at the University of Zurich (Zurich, Switzerland). The other collaborators of the project are: Andreas Beerli, postdoctoral researcher at KOF Swiss, Julian Langer, PhD candidate at the University of Zurich, and April Faith-Slaker, researcher at the Access to Justice Lab at Harvard Law School.