Study: Recidivism Rate Lingers at 40 Percent
(04/13/2011)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — More than 40 percent of ex-cons commit crimes within three years of their release and wind up back behind bars, according to a new study.

The study released by the Pew Center on the States concluded the nation’s recidivism rate had only marginally improved even as spending on corrections facilities has increased to about $52 billion a year from about $30 billion a decade ago.

About 43 percent of prisoners who were released in 2004 were sent back to prison by 2007, either for a new crime or violating the conditions of their release, the study found. That number was down from 45 percent during a similar period beginning in 1999.

However, recidivism rates have been largely stable. When excluding California, whose size skews the national picture, recidivism rates between 1994 and 2007 have consistently remained around 40 percent.

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The study cautioned that a low recidivism rate “does not always reflect the use of sound release preparation and supervision strategies, and that they may be the by-product of a wide range of other factors, such as policies that send low-risk offenders to prison instead of granting probation, which is likely to result in a low rate of reoffending but at a higher cost.”

The study also found that despite a nearly two-decade decline in national crime rates, the rate of reincarceration for a new crime among those persons released from prison increased by almost 12 percent between the 1999 and 2004. The increase was offset, however, by a 17.7 percent drop in the rate of offenders returned for a technical violation.

“These numbers suggest that states are improving their responses to community supervision violations, thereby reserving prison space for ex-offenders who have committed new crimes,” according to the study.

The study concluded the increase in the rate of returns for new crimes means states should “identify and implement evidence-based strategies that protect public safety and hold offenders accountable” because “deliberate policy decisions, such as the types of offenders sentenced to prison, how inmates are selected for release, the length of stay under supervision, and decisions about how to respond to violations of supervision” impact recidivism rates.

States that send low-risk offenders to prison are likely to see lower rearrest and violation rates compared with states that imprison more dangerous offenders, the study stated. If, for example, a state incarcerates a large proportion of lower-risk offenders, its recidivism rate might be comparatively low because such offenders would be less likely to reoffend. A state with a larger percentage of serious offenders behind bars, on the other hand, might experience higher rates of reincarceration when those offenders return to the community.

Other factors found to contribute to recidivism rates include the length of post-prison supervision. States that with shorter periods of post-prison supervision may have lower rates of reincarceration because their offenders must comply with strict supervision rules for shorter periods.

The ability of supervision agencies to detect violations and how they respond to such violations also impact recidivism rates, the study found.

How states handle parole violations can also make a difference, the study found. “California, for example, has for years taken this route, an approach that has helped to keep its prison population the highest in the nation,” the study said.

“In other states, such as Oregon, the practice is to use prison only as a last resort, and technical violations are instead met with a range of sanctions in the community, sometimes including time in jail.”

“The state that uses prison as a response would have a higher recidivism rate, because a violator’s return to prison is counted in the calculation,” the study continued. “But that higher rate would not necessarily mean that state is doing a worse job preparing offenders to succeed in the community. Rather, it is merely a reflection of how transgressions are handled.”

The Pew study concluded that alternative strategies to incarceration should be pursued in order to reduce recidivism rates. Those strategies included: defining success as recidivism reduction; measuring and rewarding progress; beginning preparations for release at the time of imprisonment; optimizing the use of supervision resources; imposing swift sanctions; and creating incentives for offenders to avoid committing additional crimes.

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