Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Forty Percent of Adult Offenders Return to Prison Within Three Years of Release

In April 2011, the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Center on the States issued a report concerning recidivism rates for released offenders.

The report, which updates a similar though far less extensive 2002 study by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), concludes that recidivism rates remained relatively unchanged at around 40% between 1994 and 2007, despite a quadrupling of spending on corrections. The system designed to deter offenders from continuing their criminal behavior is thus failing miserably. “That’s an unhappy reality,” the report states, “not just for offenders, but for the safety of American communities.”

Some of the background numbers are both startling and disturbing. In 2008, the Pew Center on the States reported that incarceration levels had increased to the point that one out of every 100 adults in the U.S. was in jail or prison. [See: PLN, Jan. 2009, p.46]. A second Pew study reported a year later that one out of every 31 American adults was either incarcerated or on probation or parole – more than 3% of the adult population. [See: PLN, Nov. 2009, p.30].

Total annual spending on corrections is currently estimated at about $52 billion. From 1973 to 2009, while the nation’s prison population increased eightfold, corrections spending doubled as a share of state funding. It now accounts for one out of every 14 general fund dollars; moreover, one of every eight state employees now works for a corrections-related agency.

The Pew report questions whether the return on this investment in corrections, as measured in recidivism, has been worth the high price. The study notes that the crime rate in the U.S. has been falling since the early 1990s and is now at its lowest level since 1968. While crediting prison expansion as being responsible for as much as one-third of the drop in crime, the report then pointedly states that “other factors and efforts must account for the remaining two-thirds of the reduction.” [See: PLN, Nov. 2011, p.44].

Since incarceration is by far the most expensive option – it costs, on average, nearly $79 a day to keep someone locked up – the Pew report notes “there are more cost-effective policies and programs” available. In light of the continuing economic recession, the study suggests that such policies and programs need to be examined and explored.

To help policy makers assess the performance of their state’s corrections system, Pew developed a single source of state-level recidivism statistics. With assistance from the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA), Pew asked the states to provide recidivism data for the 36 months following an offender’s release from prison, and to specify whether an offender was returned to prison for a new criminal conviction or a technical violation of supervision. The survey looked at recidivism from 1999-2002 and then again from 2004-2007, providing an examination of intrastate recidivism rates over time.

The Pew/ASCA survey found the three-year recidivism rate was 45.4% for the 1999 cohort and 43.3% for the 2004 cohort. By contrast, it was 51.8% for the 1994 cohort as measured by the 2002 BJS study. Excluding California (which skewed the statistics), the rates were 40.1%, 39.7% and 38.5% for the 1994, 1999 and 2004 cohorts, respectively, suggesting that the overall national recidivism rate has been relatively stable, with roughly four in ten prisoners returning to prison within three years of release.

Still, there was great variation among the states. For the 2004 releases, six states, led by Minnesota (61.2%) and California (57.8%), reported recidivism rates over 50%, while five states, led by Oregon (22.8%), reported recidivism rates below 30%.

Breaking the numbers down further, 22.3% of the 2004 cohort was returned to prison for new crimes and 21.0% was returned for technical violations. Recidivism due to new crimes ranged from Alaska’s high of 44.7% to Montana’s low of 4.7%, while recidivism for technical violations ranged from a high of 40.3% in Missouri to Arkansas’ low of zero. California’s recidivism rate due to technical violations was 40%, which gives some insight as to why that state’s prison system is grossly overcrowded.

Among the 33 states that provided data for both the 1999 and 2004 cohorts, there was a nearly even split between states with increasing and decreasing rates of recidivism. Six states, led by Oregon, reported decreases of at least 10% between the two cohort groups, while nine states reported increases of at least 10%. Overall there was an 11.9% increase between the two cohorts in the rate of recidivism due to new crimes; that increase was offset, however, by a 17.7% decrease in the rate at which offenders were incarcerated for technical violations.

By studying the examples of Oregon, Michigan and Missouri, the Pew report was able to recommend strategies for reducing recidivism while holding offenders accountable and controlling spending on corrections. Those strategies include offering incentives for agencies to reduce recidivism; beginning reentry preparation at the time offenders enter prison; using evidence-based programs specifically tailored to each prisoner’s criminal risk factors; matching post-release treatment and supervision with an offender’s risk and needs assessment; imposing swift and certain progressive sanctions for violations of supervision rules, short of incarceration; and creating incentives (such as earned-time credits) to promote positive behavior by released offenders.

Source: Pew Center on the States, “State of Recidivism: The revolving door of America’s prisons” (Pew Charitable Trusts, April 2011)

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login