Professor Megan Stevenson of the University of Virginia School of Law and her team have received a $200,000 grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation to study the hidden long-term effects of incarceration.

The two-year project will evaluate how incarceration impacts a wide range of personal and societal outcomes. The study, called “The Long Run Impacts of Incarceration: Evidence from a Regression Discontinuity Design,” will track long-term measures of economic well-being, such as educational attainment, eviction rates, earnings, employment, subprime borrowing rates and credit access.

Stevenson, an economist and criminal justice scholar, said poor prison conditions in Virginia inspired the project.

“People are stacked in small cells way beyond capacity, facilities are without air conditioning in hot summers, and without sufficient heat in the winter. The violence can be rampant,” she said. “Most prisoners have virtually no access to higher education or any other way to prepare themselves for life after release. We wanted to know what the long-term impacts of this experience are.”

The research team includes Yale University economics professor John Eric Humphries, University of Pennsylvania criminology professor Aurélie Ouss and Harvard University economics professor Winnie van Dijk.

By unearthing the connections between incarceration, barriers to reentry and social ills, the team hopes to provide prosecutors, judges and lawmakers with a body of evidence that will help them make informed decisions, and rewrite laws and sentencing guidelines where appropriate.

Stevenson said the scholars came across a useful “natural experiment” to help isolate the causal impact of incarceration, adding that Virginia uses a scoring system to calculate the sentence recommended by guidelines sentences. Defendants who score right above the threshold for a prison recommendation are much more likely to be sentenced to prison, she said, but are otherwise very similar to those who score right below.

“By comparing long-term socioeconomic outcomes across these two groups, we can feel reasonably confident that any differences we may detect are due to incarceration, since the two groups should be pretty similar in all other ways,” Stevenson said. “We plan to evaluate incarceration’s impact on wages, eviction, education, credit and other outcomes.”

Stevenson has conducted empirical research in various areas of criminal justice reform, including bail, algorithmic risk assessment, misdemeanors and juvenile justice. She also serves on the American Law and Economics Association board of directors. Her research on bail was cited extensively in a landmark federal civil rights decision, O’Donnell v. Harris County, which reformed the bail system in that part of Texas.

Stevenson was the 2019 winner of the Oliver E. Williamson prize for best article, chosen among all articles published in the Journal of Law, Economics, & Organization within the previous three years. She is associated with the Law School’s Center for Criminal Justice, Center for Public Law and Political Economy, and LawTech Center.

Arnold Ventures, which manages the giving for the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, focuses its philanthropy on issues in criminal justice, health, education and public finance, and is guided by evidence-based policy, research and advocacy, according to the organization’s website.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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