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September 25, 2015

Depressing new 2005 released-prisoner recidivism data from BJS (with lots of spin possibiities)

I just received notice of this notable new Bureau of Justice Statistics report titled "Multistate Criminal History Patterns of Prisoners Released in 30 States."  Though the BJS report and this BJS press release and this BJS summary are primarily focused on state prisoners released in 2005 who were thereafter arrested in another state, the biggest big-picture message is that for the BJS cohort of roughly 400,000 studied state prisoners released in 2005, nearly 80% were rearrested within the next five years. I cannot help but be depressed and saddened that only about one in five persons released from state prisons in 2005 was able to avoid significant contact with the criminal justice system over the subsequent five years.

Unsurprisingly, Bill Otis and other supporters and advocates of modern American incarceration levels have generally stressed these disconcerting recidivism data to assert crime is certain to increase if we enact reforms to significantly reduce our prison populations and let more folks out of prison sooner. But it bears remembering that these 2005 released prisoners served their time in state prisons and were released when the national prison population was continuing to grow and limited state resources were generally being devoted toward sending more people to prison and spending less money trying to keep people out of prison (or to aid reentry when prisoners were being released). These data thus also suggest what many reform-advocating criminologists have long said: the life disruptions and other impact of a prison term (especially when followed by poor reentry efforts) is itself criminogenic and thus serves to increase the likelihood an offender will commit crimes once released.

However one thinks about these new BJS data, it is depressingly obvious that the experience of prison for those prisoners released in 2005 seems to have done a very poor job of encouraging past offenders from becoming repeat offenders. I am cautiously hopeful that an array of prison and reentry reforms enacted by many states over the last decade will result in a much lower recidivism rate for state prisoners now being released in 2015. But only time (and lots of careful data analysis) will tell.

September 25, 2015 at 12:17 PM | Permalink


Much more encouraging news is found in huge incarceration rate declines for younger age groups. See http://www.humanimpact.org/from-the-hip-blog/lead-poisoning-and-crime-why-the-pipeline-to-prison-is-running-dry/ and 2014 update at http://www.ricknevin.com/uploads/Update_on_the_Pipeline_to_Prison_Running_Dry.pdf - From 2001-2014, the male incarceration rate fell 62% for ages 18-19, 38% for ages 20-24, 27% for ages 25-29, and 11% for ages 30-34.

Posted by: Rick Nevin | Sep 25, 2015 12:58:39 PM


That study is not very well done so I wouldn't draw much conclusion at all from it. First, it's badly presented with a mixture of in-state and out-of state data. Second, by it's own admission a substantial portion of the population studied had a prior offense--so it is a study about repeat offenders, not the general criminal population. Finally, it says "arrest for any crime" which is meaningless. In my state one can be arrested for dropping a hat. Even "crimes of violence" as we well know is fungible.

So my spin on it is that the BOJ out to set about the business of to some decent research so we can tell what is really going on. But I suspect they have no interest in that.

Posted by: Daniel | Sep 25, 2015 1:02:04 PM

Gah, that second to last sentence made no sense...

...The BOJ ought to go about the business of doing some decent research so we can tell what is really going on.

That's what I mean to say.

Posted by: Daniel | Sep 25, 2015 1:03:34 PM

The rearrest rate is zero, guaranteed, with 123D. Each of those arrests has to stand for 10 unprosecuted crimes. Compare the 20 million FBI Index felonies a year, a massive exposure of the public to victimization, to the 2 million prosecutions. All are brought to you by the rent seeking lawyer hierarchy, to maintain a few lousy government make work jobs.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 25, 2015 9:51:45 PM

The numbers are depressing. But the problem is that we are looking at the entire cohort and looking at the generalized category "arrest." I'd like to know what the breakdown is for original crime (together with criminal history) and the new crimes.

Posted by: federalist | Sep 26, 2015 7:51:08 AM

Kudos to all those complaining about this all being not-so-great data bearing the not-so-great recidivism message. I have been complaining for years that the "recidivism" and its relationship to "prison time" has been badly under-examined, and this BJS report only really confirms my fear that it is really hard and takes a really long time just to assembled the most basic data on these fronts.

Posted by: Doug B. | Sep 26, 2015 10:30:47 AM

Addressed in past comments. Again, here.

1) Get a certificate of absolute legal immunity from the Department of Justice, to apply to all jurisdictions in the nation.

2) Find a randomly selected sample of released prisoners.

3) Validate a questionnaire for reliability and validity. It should cover the activity of the prior week at most. Reporting on longer periods makes the reports mythical and a fantasy. It should be equivalent to the big IRS audit that validates their surveys, the one where they go through every gas receipt to see the fraction of claims backed up by documents for use in other lesser audits.

4) Pay the interview subjects for their time. Go day by day and ask about a long list of crimes, the damages, and the benefits to the released.

The crime meter will be spinning at supersonic speed. The profits meter will be spinning at supersonic speed, all tax free, with no regulatory burden of any kind. Thanks to the lawyer, criminals are the freest and most care free people in our nation. Any returning to a straight life is a fool.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 26, 2015 11:17:18 PM

With all due deference to the lead blood level theory, bastardy is the most powerful factor in criminality. The others are Democratic Party officials in the executive. And the other is black officials in the executive responsible policy position. I would appreciate any example of a Democratic or black or both bringing down the crime rate of a jurisdiction. Are they stupid or evil? No, they are rent seekers growing the size of government with crime.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 27, 2015 1:47:52 PM

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