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May 23, 2018

Disconcerting updated data on state prisoner recidivism from the Bureau of Justice Statistics

The Bureau of Justice Statistics has just released this notable "Special Report" that updates its data on criminal justice interactions of a huge cohort of state prisoners released in 2005.  This new report is titled "2018 Update on Prisoner Recidivism: A 9-Year Follow-up Period (2005-2014)." Here is how the document get started:

Five in 6 (83%) state prisoners released in 2005 across 30 states were arrested at least once during the 9 years following their release. The remaining 17% were not arrested after release during the 9-year follow-up period.

About 4 in 9 (44%) prisoners released in 2005 were arrested at least once during their first year after release. About 1 in 3 (34%) were arrested during their third year after release, and nearly 1 in 4 (24%) were arrested during their ninth year.

This report examines the post-release offending patterns of former prisoners and their involvement in criminal activity both within and outside of the state where they were imprisoned.  The Bureau of Justice Statistics analyzed the offending patterns of 67,966 prisoners who were randomly sampled to represent the 401,288 state prisoners released in 2005 in 30 states.  This sample is representative of the 30 states, both individually and collectively, included in the study (see Methodology).  In 2005, these 30 states were responsible for 77% of all persons released from state prisons nationwide.

There is lots more data in this report, and the data I always want to look at closely in there recidivism settings is what type of crime or activity led to re-arrest for these released prisoners. It appears, if I am reading the data correctly, that rearrests were significantly more common for drug or property crime than for violent crime. But still the data show a significant number of rearrests for violent crimes.

As is true for any detailed criminal justice data, these latest recidivism numbers can be spun in support of all sorts of sentencing argument. Some can say (and some surely will say) that disconcerting recidivism data shows why it is so important to enact meaningful sentencing and prison reform at all levels. Others can say (and surely will say) that disconcerting recidivism data shows why any reduction in prison sentences will result in more crime sooner.

May 23, 2018 at 10:50 AM | Permalink


"Others can say (and surely will say) that disconcerting recidivism data shows why any reduction in prison sentences will result in more crime sooner."

Of course they will and they will be right, I don't see anyone who disputes that fact. The question is why? The difference between the reformers and the conservatives isn't a difference about crime but the causes of crime. Conservatives tend to think that crime is caused by incorrigible malcontents who will commit crimes no matter what their personal history happens to be before or after prison and the only way to solve that problem is by incapacitation. Reformers argue that crime is a function of social conditioning both before, during and after prison and so changing these social conditions can have a meaningful impact on crime and recidivism.

Posted by: Daniel | May 23, 2018 11:49:03 AM


How does one tell if an individual has been reformed? Relapses are common in particular if they are under stress. The conservatives are not the only ones that are intolerant of criminal relapses.

Posted by: John Neff | May 23, 2018 1:54:05 PM

If the aging out of crime theory has merit I wonder if the lower figure for violent offenders is due to getting longer sentences on average and so that tranche is older on average upon release than drug or property offenders.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | May 24, 2018 2:48:31 AM

My impression is that aging out is conjecture (conclusion based on incomplete or faulty data) rather than theory. In any case it is very difficult to test because you have to follow a sample of former offenders for a long time.

Posted by: John Neff | May 24, 2018 6:29:17 AM

HI was actually surprised at how long they managed to track even this slice of the released population. Most recidivism studies are far shorter.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | May 24, 2018 2:13:56 PM

I followed 4650 individuals that were booked in our county jail in FY 2002 through the end of FY 2011 and 60% did not return. However, this an entirely different sample than those that were released from prison. The 20% that did return multiple times were often older offenders that had committed felonies in the past but were now committing misdemeanors. They are known as frequent fliers and a few have been in and out jail for 20 to 30 years. They don't live very long.

Posted by: John Neff | May 24, 2018 5:45:17 PM

The difference is that this study looked to see if they were arrested somewhere else, as you describe it you were only checking whether they came back to your facility.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | May 24, 2018 10:32:13 PM

At that time there was no way to tell if they were arrested in another state and I am confident that some of them were.

Posted by: John Neff | May 25, 2018 7:02:36 AM

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