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September 2, 2021

CCJ helpfully details "Recidivism Rates: What You Need to Know"

The Council on Criminal Justice has prepared this terrific new brief about recidivism rates building off the data collected and recently released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The brief was prepared by Nancy La Vigne and Ernesto Lopez, and I recommend the full online document. Here are some highlights (with links from the original):

The rate at which people return to prison following release is a key measure of the performance of the nation’s criminal justice system, yet national statistics on recidivism are rare.  The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) publishes them only every three years.  This brief summarizes the key takeaways from the most recent report, released in July 2021, and analyzes them in the context of previous findings.

1. The return-to-prison rate has dropped considerably.  People released from state prison in 2012 were much less likely to return to prison than those released in 2005. During the first year following release, 19.9% of the 2012 group returned to prison compared with 30.4% of the 2005 cohort.  The three-year prison return rate — the most commonly used measure — fell from about 50% to 39%. This 11-percentage point reduction persisted through the full five-year tracking period.

2. Rearrest rates remain stubbornly high.  The cumulative five-year rearrest rate of people exiting prison in 2012, at 71%, was six percentage points lower than that of people released in 2005 (77%).  The rate of rearrest for violent offenses was virtually unchanged, while rearrests for property offenses declined by three percentage points, rearrests for drug violations declined by six percentage points, and rearrests for public order offenses declined by four percentage points.

3. Most people are rearrested for public order offenses.  Public order offenses are the most common reason people are rearrested following release, accounting for 58% of 2005 releases who were rearrested and 54% of 2012 releases (Table 9, p. 9; Table 10, p. 10).  Public order is a broad category that includes offenses such as driving under the influence, disorderly conduct, and weapons violations.  The share of rearrests for weapons offenses remained relatively stable between those released in 2005 and 2012 (at 9.1% and 9.4%, respectively), as did rearrests for driving under the influence (from 9.3% to 8.7%)....

6. Criminal activity is not highly specialized.  People released in 2012 who had been serving a prison term for a violent crime were almost as likely to be rearrested for a property crime (28.9%) as a violent crime (32.4%) — Table 11.  Similarly, many people serving time for property crimes (29.6%) were rearrested for violent offenses (51.2%).  This aligns with prior research that suggests that most criminal behavior is not highly specialized and that labeling someone as “violent” or “non-violent” is overly simplistic.

7. Different metrics tell different stories.  Historically, the most common measure of recidivism has been the rate at which people return to prison within three years of release. Because there were long periods of time between national reports over the last few decades, it was commonly though that the three-year state prison recidivism rate was stagnant at about 50%.  That was the return rate of people released in 1994, a finding that wasn’t published until 2002.  It was another dozen years before the next report, in 2014, tracked recidivism of those released in 2005.  More recently, BJS has reported recidivism rates more frequently and has used different measures, including the rearrest rate. While the different measures have their strengths and weaknesses, it is important to compare apples to apples.  In this case, that means distinguishing headlines about rearrest rates that top 70% over a five-year period from three-year re-incarceration rates, which now have fallen below 40%.

September 2, 2021 at 12:29 PM | Permalink


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