(The Conversation is an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.)

Shawn D. Bushway, University at Albany, State University of New York and David J. Harding, University of California, Berkeley

(THE CONVERSATION) Rapper Meek Mill is back in prison in Pennsylvania for violating the terms of his probation.

According to officials, Mill left the state without permission, did not meet with his probation officer, tested positive for Percocet, failed to complete community service and got into a fight at an airport.

Mill’s case has drawn new attention to how probation and parole violations contribute to extremely high rates of incarceration in the United States. These high rates of incarceration are in part driven by reimprisonment of formerly incarcerated individuals, known as recidivism. More than half of people who are released from prison in a given year in the United States will return within five years, a phenomenon that has come to be known as prison’s “revolving door.”

Reducing the prison population requires a deeper understanding of what drives the revolving door. The results of our recently published study show how parole, even more than probation, plays a key role.

In 2012, we set out to understand what drives recidivism in collaboration with Jeffrey D. Morenoff and Anh P. Nyugen, sociologists at the University of Michigan. Based on previous scholarship, we considered three possible explanations for why so many convicted felons return to prison.

The first is that individuals sentenced to prison may simply be prone to committing crimes. In this explanation, prison itself plays no important role in what happens next. If this explanation is correct, we would observe the same levels of imprisonment even if these individuals were given probation supervision in the community instead of prison.

A second explanation is that prison causes inmates to become more likely to commit a crime upon release. Imprisonment may disrupt ties to family and community, enhance the stigma of a felony conviction, create or exacerbate mental health problems or socialize inmates into criminal ways of thinking.

A third explanation is that instead of prison itself, it is the intensity of parole supervision that follows prison that increases the risk of returning to prison, compared to probation.

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