Prison versus Probation in California

Implications for Crime and Offender Recidivism

by Joan R. Petersilia, Susan Turner, Joyce E. Peterson


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This report, part of a RAND study of the use of prison and probation for felony offenders, examines offender behavior after imprisonment. Using a sample of comparable prisoners and probationers, the authors investigate the association between imprisonment and recidivism, estimate the amount of crime that was prevented when felons were imprisoned rather than placed on probation, and discuss the costs to the criminal justice system to achieve that reduction in crime. The findings suggest the following: (1) The prisoners had higher recidivism rates than the probationers, both across crime types and in the aggregate. However, the prisoners' crimes were no more serious than the probationers', nor was there a significant difference in the length of time before their first filed charge. (2) The prisoners committed 20 percent fewer crimes than the probationers during the three years following their convictions. (3) The criminal justice system spent about twice as much on supervising and reprocessing prisoners as it did on probationers over the three-year period.

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