In the clink

America’s Recidivism Nightmare

A new government study shows a disturbing trend for the prison population.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty

The Bureau of Justice Statistics has finally released new information on recidivism rates among former prisoners in the U.S.—and while the numbers, aren’t necessarily surprising, experts say, they are disturbing.

The study, released Tuesday, tracked 404,638 state prisoners from 30 states who were released in 2005. It found that 67.8 percent of them were re-arrested within three years of their release and 76.6 percent were re-arrested within five years. Of the latter group, more than a third were re-arrested in the first six months after leaving prison, and more than half were arrested by the end of the first year, showing that the rate of recidivism was highest during the first year and declined every year after that.

Those who study criminal justice may be eager to get their hands on this new data, but the researchers are quick to warn against comparing the findings of the latest study with the one before it, which dated from the 1994. That study documented a recidivism rate of 67.5 percent but it was smaller in scope; it focused on former prisoners from 15 states rather than 30 and followed up after three years rather than five. More importantly—as Matt Durose, one of the BSJ statisticians who worked on the study, pointed out—prison populations have changed since 1994.

“One of the biggest factors is age. The prison population is getting older,” Durose told The Daily Beast, noting that only 17 percent of the former prisoners included in the 1994 study were 40 years old or older. That age group accounted for 30 percent of the inmates examined in the new study. “When you have changes in the cohorts, that can directly impact the results. Recidivism rates decline with age.”

One of the other key differences between the two studies is that improvements that have been made to how the FBI and individual states make and store criminal history records, or rap sheets. Since 1994, $500 million from the BJS’s National Criminal History Improvement program, in addition to individual state funding, has gone into updating automated rap sheets and fingerprinting technology as well as a computerized system for storing records. These improvements mean fewer illegible fingerprints, more access to out-of-state records and, as a result, more documented arrests.

If it remains hard to understand where the BJS’s new numbers stand in the greater context of recidivism in the U.S. that’s because “recidivism” is not easily defined. The BJS study measures recidivism by number of arrests—the broadest definition—but it could also be measured by convictions or, according the narrowest definition, returns to prison.

“You’re always going to get the highest rate when you look at rearrests. But just because you are arrested doesn’t mean you’re found guilty,” said Edward Latessa, professor and director of the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Cincinnati, who also noted that numbers don’t differentiate by the seriousness of the crime. “If I’m arrested for armed robbery and you’re arrested for public intoxication, we’re both going to show up as arrested.”

Latessa thinks that looking at convictions is a better way to examine recidivism, but acknowledges that while arrests may be the broadest measure, it’s also the easiest data to get ahold of. That’s why the BJS’s definition and length of follow-up used are important to consider when analyzing such the latest numbers.

“If you define it as a return to prison and you follow for a year, you’ll have a much lower rate,” Latessa said.

CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice Professor Deborah Koetzle agrees with Latessa but hopes that the drastic numbers will spark more conversation about the need for rehabilitation and re-entry programs to combat recidivism.

“In a lot of ways we set people up because we put them in prisons, which are are coercive, violent environments that can have psychological impacts, and when they come out we put up a lot of barriers,” Koetzle told The Daily Beast. “We make it difficult for them to get jobs, to find housing. We put them back in an environment where there’s a lot of temptations without a lot of support.”

Koetzle argues that most correctional facilities are not equipped with the types of psychological or substance abuse treatment programs many inmates need, making it unsurprising when people come home and get into trouble again.

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“We spend a lot of money incarcerating people and it’s not a very efficient way of doing things unless we’re providing treatment,” Koetzle said. “We should to look at these figures and think, there is a reason for this. We need to do a better job.”