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May 17, 2022

US Sentencing Commission releases notable new report on recidivism rates for federal prisoners completing drug programs

The US Sentencing Commission today released this lengthy new report titled "Recidivism and Federal Bureau of Prisons Programs: Drug Program Participants Released in 2010." This report is the fifth in a series continuing the USSC's detailed examination of recidivism by federal offenders released in 2010.  This USSC webpage provides this brief account of the coverage and findings of the report:

In this report, the Commission provides an analysis of data on the recidivism of federal offenders who participated in Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) drug abuse treatment while incarcerated. The study examines whether completion of drug programs offered by the BOP impacted recidivism among a cohort of federal offenders who were released from prison in calendar year 2010. The report combines data regularly collected by the Commission, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) criminal history records, and data on program completion and participation provided by the BOP.

In this report, Drug Program Participants were offenders who participated in one of the following programs:

  • Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP)
    • The first group comprises 8,474 offenders who the BOP marked as eligible to participate in RDAP while serving time in BOP custody.
    • RDAP is the BOP’s “most intensive” drug treatment program and requires that participants receive treatment in a specialized unit that houses only RDAP participants
  • Non-Residential Drug Abuse Program (NRDAP)
    • The second group comprises 4,446 offenders who were marked as eligible to participate in NRDAP.
    • NRDAP consists of drug treatment, conducted primarily in a group setting, over the course of 12 to 24 weeks.

    Key Findings

    This study observed a significant reduction in the likelihood of recidivism for offenders who completed the Residential Drug Abuse Treatment Program or the Non-Residential Drug Abuse Treatment Program.

    • RDAP Completers had lower rates of recidivism, compared to eligible offenders who did not complete or participate in the program. Less than half of RDAP Completers (48.2%) recidivated in the eight-year follow-up period of this study, compared to 68.0 percent of RDAP Eligible Non-Participants.
      • RDAP Completers were 27 percent less likely to recidivate compared to RDAP-Eligible Non-Participants.
      • RDAP Completers had higher post-release rates of drug-related recidivism, compared to RDAP Participants and RDAP Eligible Non-Participants.
    • NRDAP Completers had lower recidivism rates compared to offenders who did not complete or participate in the program. Nearly half (49.9%) of offenders who completed NRDAP recidivated during the study period, compared to over half (54.0%) of NRDAP Eligible Non-Participants.
      • NRDAP Completers were 17 percent less likely to recidivate compared to eligible non-participants and offenders with a history of substance abuse who served at least five months in BOP custody.

May 17, 2022 at 11:57 AM | Permalink


This highlights how unfortunate it is that 50% of those who need drug treatment in prison can't get it. And that was pre-COVID.

Posted by: defendergirl | May 17, 2022 4:39:14 PM

This seems to have some significant design limitations. Looking at completers vs. non-completing participants vs. refusers, the refusers were more likely to have higher security levels, higher criminal history categories, and were about twice as likely to be serving sentences for non-drug offenses. More critically, the refusers refused to participate in the program despite the carrots and sticks BOP has to encourage participation. That suggests they may have had significantly different attitudes than the completer group prior to the intervention starting.
I know the authors tried to control variables they could using regression techniques, but I posit that "refusal to participate" is itself an important between-groups difference. And comparing to inmates who are not eligible for RDAP at all carries its own set of problems. Even with the non-completer participant group, one suspects that that group differed from the completer group in ways not readily observable prior to the start of RDAP programming (e.g., poorer impulse control at the start of the program, which let to being kicked out for rule violations).

In other words, it's hard to say how much RDAP programming actively helped reduce recidivism vs. how much these results are a result of identifying inmates who are willing and able to complete the program. In other words, finding out who could not or would not complete the program may have primarily captured differences in recidivism risk that existed prior to the RDAP program.

Unfortunately, testing that possibility is difficult -- the only thing I can think of is establishing a placebo program (whose overt content we would not expect to reduce recidivism) that is as difficult as RDAP and carries the same incentives, then randomly assign people to the placebo program or RDAP. The outcome difference between RDAP and the placebo program would be a more reliable indicator of RDAP's actual effectiveness. Unfortunately, such a study would pose significant ethical and policy concerns.

Posted by: Jason | May 18, 2022 11:19:37 AM

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