The situation in Latin American prisons is evolving rapidly. The rights and health of more than 1.2 million inmates in the region are at stake and need to become a priority. Some countries have implemented general pardons for nonviolent inmates, limited pretrial detentions or modified visitation rights. However, most countries have yet to take action. Some argue that releasing inmates will pose a threat to the public. Others believe that, if done properly, former inmates will become productive members of society. The debate is torn between wanting to keep the public safe and respecting inmates’ rights. To shed some light on this issue, let’s take a closer look at specific examples of prisoner release from the literature on the economics of crime.
As discussed in the first part of this blog series, several Latin American countries are taking concrete steps to limit the spread of Covid-19 in prisons. This past week alone, Brazil authorized the release of 30,000 inmates after 104 tested positive and four passed away. Similarly, Ecuador freed 577 inmates that were eligible for early release. However, the decision to implement these kinds of programs is by no means an easy one, given that several social dimensions must be considered. For example, in Chile, more than 100 inmates decided to remain in prison even though they were eligible to serve the rest of their sentences at home. Some of them cited not having a place to go or not wanting to lose the jobs they held in prison.
Prison Population and Public Safety
When considering any relief measures for prisoners, it is crucial to keep in mind that prison populations are not homogeneous. In practice, the level of risk to which the public is exposed depends on the group of prisoners that would benefit from such measures. Recent examples from Italy and California provide important insights into this issue. In 2006, Italy passed a collective pardon that authorized the immediate release of a third of its prison population. The pardon was granted on the condition that prisoners who relapsed would have to serve their remaining sentences. In practice, people convicted of serious offenses, such as organized crime, terrorism, kidnapping, and some sexual crimes, were not eligible for pardon. Nonetheless, a large group of individuals were freed. As a result, crime increased sharply, and after only 20 months, Italy’s prison population returned to the same level of overcrowding from before the pardon.
Meanwhile, California passed a series of reforms between 2011 and 2014 that produced very different results. Their purpose was to decongest state prisons and county jails, especially by easing penalties for drug offenses and other nonviolent crimes. Collectively, these measures reduced California’s prison population by more than a quarter. Unlike Italy, California was particularly selective in identifying beneficiaries and gradually defining new sentencing regimes. As a result, and as shown by a series of studies, there was no effect on violent crime and only a small increase in some specific property crimes. In practice, this led to a permanent reduction in the prison population yielding public savings which, by fairly conservative estimates, exceeded the potential social costs in terms of public safety.
While these cases from Italy and California provide important clues, the current lockdown and strict social distancing policies create a very unique context that makes it hard to predict how former inmates may behave upon their release. However, there is evidence connecting recidivism and labor market conditions that cannot be overlooked.
Recidivism and Local Labor Market Conditions
There are several factors that impact how likely former inmates are to return to prison. One robust finding in the literature is that they face significant barriers to employment. More recently, studies have shown that detrimental labor market effects can be directly attributed to pretrial detention in countries like the United States and Chile. These findings can be especially worrisome in the current context created by the pandemic. Unemployment rates around the world have gone up drastically. In the US alone a total of 30 million people have filed for jobless claims within the past five weeks. That is a historical high. These numbers suggest that local labor conditions in the US are worsening quickly and Latin American countries are not immune to this phenomenon.
It is safe to assume that the general public believes inmates want nothing else than to be freed. However, recent events in Chile challenge this assumption, as over 100 inmates opted out of an early release citing job security in their prison. This further supports a body of research that has shown that reintegration of former inmates and parolees into the labor market largely depends on the labor market conditions at the moment of release. A study of 1.7 million offenders in California found that increases in job opportunities in the construction and manufacturing sectors at the time of release are associated with significant reductions in recidivism. These results are consistent with a large study in 43 US states that finds that prisoners who are released to counties with higher low-skilled employment and higher average low-skilled wages are significantly less likely to relapse. These findings provide valuable insights into the extent to which current labor market conditions within specific sectors affect the likelihood of recidivism.
In Colombia, two related studies have shown a strong link between unemployment and probability of arrest. The first one exploits variations in opportunities for reemployment and finds that the increase in arrests after job displacement is smaller among sectors with more opportunities. The second study shows that a policy that drove people into informality had unintended negative consequence on crime. This set of findings is extremely relevant, especially for Latin America. Informality is a feature of Latin American labor markets, and access to opportunities for former convicts tends to be restricted to low-skill and informal sectors. Given that several countries are currently evaluating laws that would release inmates, governments need to make sure that labor restrictions are limited and that mechanisms and incentives are in place to facilitate their reintegration into society.
Insights from a Policy Experiment in Uruguay
An important question in the current context of high unemployment has to do with access to social benefits. Many countries provide financial resources to former inmates the day of their release as a way to ease their way back into society. This concept is known as a gratuity. In Uruguay, the government decided to raise this gratuity from UR$30 to UR$100 in 2010. This simple, low-cost intervention built on an existing policy reduced first-day recidivism from 0.587 crimes per release to zero crimes per release.
A team of researchers who evaluated the Uruguayan gratuity program found that the reason for this reduction was that former convicts were less cash constrained on their first day out. The reality is that they have limited opportunities to generate income. However, this simple yet effective intervention provided former convicts with extra resources so they wouldn’t stray from the path of virtue on their first day of freedom. Even though the scale of the program is small, it is a good example of a policy alternative that respects inmates’ rights and ensures public safety.
Although the crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented, we should not overlook some important insights that are well documented in the literature. The decisions and actions of policymakers in the coming weeks will likely shape criminal justice policy in Latin America for the coming years.