The Open Philanthropy Blog

This is the fourth in a series of posts summarizing the Open Philanthropy review of the evidence on the impacts of incarceration on crime. The full report is available in PDF, Kindle, and ePub formats.

The two other in-depth posts in this series share what I learned about the incarceration’s “before” effect, deterrence of crime, and the “during” effect, which is called “incapacitation.” In sum, in the current U.S. policy context, I doubt deterrence and believe in incapacitation.

Going by the analysis so far, rolling back mass incarceration would increase crime. But that tally is incomplete. This post turns to the “after” effects of crime, which I call, cleverly, “aftereffects.” Unlike deterrence and incapacitation, even the overall sign of aftereffects cannot be determined from general principles. Having been in jail or prison could “rehabilitate” you or “harden” you into greater criminality.

The traditionally favored term for aftereffects, “specific deterrence,” captures the idea that doing time viscerally strengthens the fear of punishment and deters people from reoffending. The corrections system corrects. Penitentiaries elicit penitence. No doubt, those things do often happen. And prisons do good in other ways. Some help people off of addictive substances, teach job and life skills, or improve literacy and self-control.

However, the prison experience can also manufacture criminality. It can alienate people from society, giving them less psychological stake in its rules. It can make people better criminals by bringing them together to learn from each other. It can strengthen their allegiances to gangs whose reach extends into prisons. While some may get drug treatment, others may not, even as they suffer through withdrawal or preserve access to drugs. And incarceration can permanently mark people in the eyes of employers, making it hard to find legal work.

My review includes 15 aftereffects studies. Six conclude that more time (or time in harsher conditions) leads to less crime, eight that it leads to more crime. One study is neutral, but it involves sentences of only a day or two, for drunk driving. If we give each study one vote, then the view that prison generally increases criminality wins, narrowly. Of course, all the studies could be correct for their setting, since the prison experience varies from place to place. Bearing in mind the potential for diversity, it is still worth searching for a consensus view, as the basis for a first-order generalization about the likely impacts of decarceration nationwide. In fact, I think closer inspection of the literature tends to strengthen the view that in the U.S. today, aftereffects are typically harmful. Some reasons:

  • Of the six studies in the minority, two come from Georgia; their results appear explicable by a statistical artifact I have christened “parole bias.”
  • Another is set in California nearly a half century ago, before retribution overturned rehabilitation as the dominant philosophy of corrections in the U.S.
  • A study set in contemporary Seattle appears to suffer from baseline imbalance, meaning that the treatment and control groups differed from beginning.
  • One study in the minority looks compelling, yet is set in Norway, which appears to be much more committed to rehabilitating inmates than most American prisons (see this, this).

(The sixth looks at the impact of up to a month’s detention on juvenile offenders in Washington state. I find no serious problems with it.)

I also discovered reasons to doubt some of the studies in the majority. For example, I noticed baseline imbalance in a randomized trial that put some inmates in higher-security prison. And in the study I’ll detail next, the quasi-experiment looks imperfect.

Nevertheless a substantial family of studies coalesces around the finding that when incapacitation and aftereffects are measured in the same setting, the first is offset by the second, over time. That is to say: putting someone in prison cuts crime in the short run but increases it in the long run, on net.

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Over the last two years, animal welfare organizations successfully secured pledges from major restaurants and grocers to eliminate battery cages from their supply chains, which are collectively expected to bring cage-free housing from ~13% of the domestic egg supply to ~70% when fully implemented. We have been the largest funder of these campaigns.

In our blog post announcing our support for these campaigns, we claimed that cage-free systems were much better than battery cages for hen welfare, based on initial research conducted by Lewis Bollard, our program officer for farm animal welfare. Lewis briefly argued against a memorandum by animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) which claimed the opposite. This disagreement was further explored in a series of comments written by Lewis and Wayne Hsiung of DxE.

We left that discussion unsatisfied with our knowledge about the evidence on hen welfare in different housing systems, and I (Ajeya Cotra) conducted a more thorough investigation – the full report can be found here. My findings were, in short:

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One of the challenges of large-scale philanthropy is: how can a small number of decision-maker(s) (e.g., donors) find a large number of giving opportunities that they understand well enough to feel good about funding?

Most of the organizations I’ve seen seem to use some combination of project-based, people-based, and process-based approaches to delegation. To illustrate these, I’ll use the hypothetical example of a grant to fund research into new malaria treatments. I use the term “Program Officers” to refer to the staff primarily responsible for making recommendations to decision-makers.

  • Project-based approaches: the decision-makers hire Program Officers to look for projects; decision-makers ultimately evaluate the projects themselves. Thus, decision-makers delegate the process of searching for potential grants, but don’t delegate judgment and decision-making. For example, a Program Officer might learn about proposed research on new malaria treatments and then make a presentation to a donor or foundation Board, explaining how the project will work, and trying to convince the donor or Board that it is likely to succeed.
  • People-based approaches: decision-makers delegate essentially everything to trusted individuals. They look for staff they trust, and then defer heavily to them. For example, a Program Officer might become convinced of the merits of research on new malaria treatments and propose a grant, with the funder deferring to their judgment despite not knowing the details of the proposed research.
  • Process-based approaches: the decision-makers establish consistent, systematic criteria for grants, and processes that aim to meet these criteria. Decisions are often made by aggregating opinions from multiple grant reviewers. For example, a donor might solicit proposals for research on new malaria treatments, assemble a technical review board, ask each reviewer to rate each proposal on several criteria, and use a pre-determined aggregation system to make the final decisions about which grants are funded. Government funders such as the National Institutes of Health often use such approaches. These approaches often seek to minimize the need for individual judgment, effectively delegating to a process.

    These different classifications can also be useful in thinking about how Program Officers relate to grantees. Program Officers can recommend grants based on being personally convinced of a particular project; recommend grants based primarily on the people involved, deferring heavily on the details of those people’s plans; or recommend grants based on processes that they set up to capture certain criteria.

    This post discusses how I currently see the pros and cons of each, and what our current approach is. In large part, we find the people-based approach ideal for the kind of hits-based giving we’re focused on. But we use elements of project-based evaluation (and to a much lesser degree, process-based evaluation) as well - largely in order to help us better evaluate people over time.

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  • In 2015, I researched and wrote about the risk to industrial society from geomagnetic storms—terrestrial phenomena that, despite their name, originate on the sun. Mild storms give us the ineffable beauty of the Northern Lights, and the Southern Lights too. Severe geomagnetic maelstroms might, some fear, knock out key satellites or cause continent-wide blackouts that would take months to undo.

    I concluded that the risk had been exaggerated in the studies that gained the most attention. Still, given the potential stakes and the historical neglect of the problem, the issue deserved more attention from people in science, business, and government.

    As I wrapped up my investigation, I tripped on a question of statistical method that I did not have time to fully explore. I have since put more time into the question. I just finalized a working paper about the results and submitted it to a journal. The upshot for the geomagnetic storm investigation is that I have modified my methods for extrapolating storm risks from the historical record. As a result, I have raised my best estimate of the chance of a really big storm, like the storied one of 1859, from 0.33% to 0.70% per decade. And I have expanded my 95% confidence interval for this estimate from 0.0–4.0% to 0.0–11.6% per decade.

    More explanation follows.

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    Over a year ago, we started exploring options for spinning the Open Philanthropy Project out from GiveWell as an independent organization. Though the process took a bit longer than we had hoped, the new legal arrangement took effect on June 1.

    This post covers the evolution of the Open Philanthropy Project into an independent entity, and the reasons for the spin-out from our perspective. It also discusses why we’re operating the Open Philanthropy Project as an LLC, and what our relationship to GiveWell will be going forward. (For some more technical details on the transaction, see the GiveWell post here.)

    This transition has been in motion for some time, and we expect that the bulk of our operations will appear unchanged to outsiders.

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    As we’ve written previously, we aim to extend empathy to every being that warrants moral concern, including animals. And while many experts, government agencies, and advocacy groups agree that some animals live lives worthy of moral concern, there seems to be little agreement on which animals warrant moral concern. Hence, to inform our long-term giving strategy, I’ve prepared a new report on the following question: “In general, which types of beings merit moral concern?” Or, to phrase the question as some philosophers do, “Which beings are moral patients?”

    For this preliminary investigation, I focused on just one commonly endorsed criterion for moral patienthood: phenomenal consciousness, a.k.a. “subjective experience.” I have not come to any strong conclusions about which (non-human) beings are conscious, but I think some beings are more likely to be conscious than others, and I make several suggestions for how we might make progress on the question.

    In the long run, to make well-grounded decisions about how much we should value grants aimed at (e.g.) chicken or fish welfare, we need to form initial impressions not just about which creatures are more and less likely to be conscious, but also about (a) other plausible criteria for moral patienthood besides consciousness, and also about (b) the question of “moral weight.” However, those two questions are beyond the scope of this initial report on consciousness. In the future I hope to build on the initial framework and findings of this report, and come to some initial impressions about other criteria for moral patienthood and about moral weight.

    My goals for this report on consciousness and moral patienthood were to:

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    As part of our research on the history of philanthropy, I recently investigated several case studies of early field growth, especially those in which philanthropists purposely tried to grow the size and impact of a (typically) young and small field of research or advocacy.

    The full report includes brief case studies of bioethics, cryonics, molecular nanotechnology, neoliberalism, the conservative legal movement, American geriatrics, American environmentalism, and animal advocacy. My key takeaways are:

    • Most of the “obvious” methods for building up a young field have been tried, and those methods often work. For example, when trying to build up a young field of academic research, it often works to fund workshops, conferences, fellowships, courses, professorships, centers, requests for proposals, etc. Or when trying to build up a new advocacy community, it often works to fund student clubs, local gatherings, popular media, etc.
    • Fields vary hugely along several dimensions, including (1) primary sources of funding (e.g. large philanthropists, many small donors, governments, companies), (2) whether engaged philanthropists were “active” or “passive” in their funding strategy, and (3) how much the growth of the field can be attributed to endogenous factors (e.g. explicit movement-building work) vs. exogenous factors (e.g. changing geopolitical conditions).
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    Campaigns since early 2015 have secured pledges from over 200 US companies to eliminate battery cages from their supply chains, including from all of the top 25 US grocers and 16 of the top 20 fast food chains. Collectively, the US Department of Agriculture estimates that these pledges will affect ~225M hens, or ~70% of the US non-organic flock (from less than 5% of hens covered by cage-free pledges previously).

    These campaigns were primarily funded by $3M in grants from the Open Philanthropy Project, split between four groups: the Humane League, Mercy for Animals, the Humane Society of the United States’ Farm Animal Protection Campaign, and Compassion in World Farming USA. (International campaigns using similar tactics, funded by $3.8M in Open Philanthropy Project grants, have secured pledges from corporate giants in Canada, Colombia, Brazil, France, Germany, Mexico, and the UK.) However, it’s worth noting that much or all of the success may have been inevitable once the early pledges (which preceded our funding) were achieved.

    Regardless of the role Open Philanthropy played, these campaigns look like a major and unusual success story for rapid, large-scale change brought on by advocacy. Here, I give my subjective and somewhat loose impressions on why these campaigns were so successful. It’s possible that we’ll do a more in-depth look-back at a later date, but for now I wanted to share my thinking for those looking for lessons that might be drawn.

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    This post aims is to give blog readers and followers of the Open Philanthropy Project an opportunity to publicly raise comments or questions about the Open Philanthropy Project or related topics (in the comments section below). As always, you’re also welcome to email us at [email protected] if there’s feedback or questions you’d prefer to discuss privately. We’ll try to respond promptly to questions or comments.

    You can see our previous open thread here.

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    This post compares our progress with the goals we set forth a year ago, and lays out our plans for the coming year.

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