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UVa law professor wins grant to study incarceration

University of Virginia
Megan Stevenson teaches law and economics at the University of Virginia.

A professor at the University of Virginia School of Law is studying the long-term effects of incarceration on individuals and society. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

Professor Megan Stevenson is an economist and criminal justice scholar.

MEGAN STEVENSON: We lock up, by far, more people in the United States than any other country in the world. About seven times as many as in western Europe. This is just a fact of social life in the United States.

She realized that a natural experiment was taking place in Virginia's criminal justice system that could show the direct effects of incarceration on someone's life, separate from other factors.

STEVENSON: They have a method of determining what your recommended sentence is. And this method involves adding up points for a bunch of different factors. You get a certain number of points for how serious the crime that you're convicted of was. You get a certain number of points for criminal history, so on and so forth.

There's a threshold at which your total number of points means that you are much more likely to get a prison sentence, rather than a short stint in jail and/or probation. But it takes just a difference of one point to push you over that line, meaning the people right on either side of that line are likely to have similar personal and criminal histories.

STEVENSON: We can be reasonably confident that any changes in outcomes you might observe, any changes in future wages or future education levels or future recidivism rates … that we can attribute that to the fact that one group just sort of got unlucky, so to speak, and got the longer sentences.

The Laura and John Arnold Foundation awarded Stevenson and her team a $200,000 grant for the two-year study. They will analyze data from the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission on hundreds of thousands of people convicted of a felony in the state in the last 25 years.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.