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The Hard Truth About Recidivism

Rehabilitation is a beautiful thing.  The story of a person who previously followed a life of crime seeing the light, turning himself around, and becoming a productive and law-abiding member of society warms our hearts.

Regrettably, it is very much the exception, not the rule.  Most criminals released from prison go right back to their old ways.

Criminologists measure recidivism by a new arrest after release.  This measure is imperfect, to put it mildly, because arrest does not equal guilt.  Not all arrested are guilty, and not all guilty are arrested.  Given the low clearance rate for crimes (46% for violent and 18% for property in the 2016 CIUS), the latter problem is the bigger one by far.  That is, the real recidivism rate is much higher than the reported rate because the perpetrator does not get caught for most crimes.

The recidivism rate for a cohort of released criminals also depends on how many years you follow up.  If a researcher-advocate wants a low number, all he has to do is define recidivism for the purpose of the study with a short follow-up period.

Today the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report titled 2018 Update on Prisoner Recidivism:  A 9-Year Follow-up Period (2005-2014).  The nine-year period is new, and the report confirms what we have known from shorter but varying periods: the longer you follow up, the greater percentage is eventually arrested for a new crime.  At nine years, the percentage not arrested at any time in the follow-up period down to a discouraging 16.6%, only 1 in 6.

Are the people arrested in year 9 but not in years 1--8 people who went straight for 8 years and then fell off the wagon?  Doubtful.  More likely they were just good at evading capture for 8 years but eventually slipped up.
Here are the "highlights" according to BJS, with a comment on each:

  • The 401,288 state prisoners released in 2005 had 1,994,000 arrests during the 9-year period, an average of 5 arrests per released prisoner. Sixty percent of these arrests occurred during years 4 through 9.
Five arrests per released prisoner, multiplied by a factor to adjust for the fact that they are only arrested for a fraction of the crimes they commit, is an enormous number of crimes.  The currently popular notion that we can shorten sentences without increasing crimes is just crazy.  Shortening sentences may be the right thing to do in some instances, but we need to approach the question with our eyes wide open as to the cost to the innocent people who will be victimized as a result.

  • An estimated 68% of released prisoners were arrested within 3 years, 79% within 6 years, and 83% within 9 years.
If you see a study that defines "recidivism" with a 3-year follow up, throw it in the garbage.  That's what it is.

  • Eighty-two percent of prisoners arrested during the 9-year period were arrested within the first 3 years.
A lot of the arrests in the outer years are rearrests of people arrested in the early years.  So releasing people on parole and putting them back in prison quickly if they commit new crimes will prevent a lot of crimes.  We used to understand that, but the big push now is in the other direction.

  • Almost half (47%) of prisoners who did not have an arrest within 3 years of release were arrested during years 4 through 9.
Even the skilled ones eventually slip up if they are habitual criminals, but studies with short follow-ups erroneously count them as redeemed.  See the "garbage" comment above.

  • Forty-four percent of released prisoners were arrested during the first year following release, while 24% were arrested during year-9.
24% were arrested during year 9, but only 1% were arrested for the first time during year 9.  A lot of released prisoners commit yet another crime after being released again following a post-release arrest.


re: Prison Reform Summit at the White House by Charlie Kirk, opinion contributor — The Hill — 05/24/18 [excerpts]

Trump can get Democrats to oppose virtually anything, even something they have supported for their entire careers, simply by coming out in favor of it.

From a math perspective, this is a no-brainer. The bill authorizes a mere $50
million annually to create the risk and assessment system and carry out anti-recidivism programs.
On the other hand, the White House Council of Economic Advisors says that
the reforms can save taxpayers $1.47 billion to $5.27 billion. For some further perspective, Congress appropriated $7.2 billion for the federal prison system
in FY 2018. The authorization for this program would amount to 0.68% of
that annual total.

Democrats were immediately outraged by this blatant attempt on the part of the president to take positive action on something for which they have long been
in favor.
Rounding up the usual suspects, Rep. Sheila Jackson (D-Texas) and Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and other Democrats issued a statement
urging Democrats to oppose Trump ideas because his plan does not yet
speak to sentencing guidelines
and requirements.

The rapper Meek Mill grabs a microphone anywhere he goes and rails against the unfairness of the criminal justice system. President Trump invited him to the summit so he would have a chance to contribute ideas and be part of the
Pressure from fellow rapper Jay-Z publicly shamed away Meek Mill from attending.

~ http://thehill.com/opinion/criminal-justice/389157-trump-has-exposed-

These deplorable recidivist numbers likely do not count administrative violators of parole and supervised release which are considerable. How comfortable should the public be with a parolee who hasn't yet logged an arrest but is using drugs and not working? Progressive researchers consider that a success.

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