Claim that “science and data” show that shorter sentences for violent and habitual criminals promote public safety has no basis in published research, says legal foundation
Upon taking office last December, Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón announced a policy that “sentence enhancements or other sentencing allegations … shall not be filed in any cases and shall be withdrawn in pending matters.” Sentence enhancements are additions to a convicted criminal’s sentence for such aggravating factors as causing great bodily injury, using a gun, or having previously been convicted of a serious or violent felony.
In Special Directive 20-08, the new DA supported this policy with a claim that “studies show” that longer sentences cause a large increase in the rate at which felons commit new crimes after release, so large that it overcomes the benefit of preventing them from committing new crimes while they are in prison. In a press release on March 17, 2021, Gascón asserted in support of this policy and others, “We are doing all of this because the science and data tell us so.” However, with regard to sentence length and recidivism, the District Attorney’s Office has cited only one unpublished, non-peer-reviewed manuscript in support of the claim.
The Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation (CJLF) undertook a review of published research on this subject to determine if, in fact, “studies show” what Gascón claims. CJLF released the results today in the form of a working paper,Sentence Length and Recidivism: A Review of the Research. The paper is co-authored by CJLF Research Associate Elizabeth Berger and Legal Director Kent Scheidegger.
“There is no strong basis in the published research for the claim that longer sentences increase recidivism relative to shorter ones,” said Berger. “Most studies on the effect of sentence length suggest either no effect on recidivism or slight reductions in recidivism.”
“Cherry-picking a single unpublished paper for what ‘studies show’ when the body of published literature is contrary is a blatant misrepresentation,” said Scheidegger. “The state of our knowledge in this area is still limited, but what we do know tends to refute rather than support Gascón’s claims.”
CJLF’s working paper, Sentence Length and Recidivism: A Review of the Research, is available at https://www.cjlf.org/publications/papers/SentenceRecidivism.pdf
CJLF Legal Director Kent Scheidegger and Research Associate Elizabeth Berger are available for comment at (916) 446-0345.