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Long-Term Recidivism Studies Show High Arrest Rates

by Matt Clarke 

Two reports on long-term recidivism among prisoners released from state and federal prisons showed very high arrest rates. The rate for state prisoners was 83% over a nine-year study period, while it was 39.8% for nonviolent and about 64% for violent federal prisoners over an eight-year period. 

A May 2018 U.S. Department of Justice report on state prisoner recidivism followed a sample of the 412,731 prisoners released by 30 states in 2005 – about 77% of all state prisoners released that year. Of those releasees, 89% were male, 18% were under age 24 and 54% were between 25 and 39. Blacks and whites each made up about 40% of the releasees. Of the entire study group, 32% had been convicted of drug offenses, 30% of property offenses, 26% of violent crimes and 13% of public order offenses.

Overall, almost 45% of the former prisoners were arrested within one year of release; 16% were arrested for the first time in the second year, 8% in the third, 11% in years four to six and 4% in years seven to nine. Thus, about 68% were arrested within three years, 79% within six years and 83% in nine years.

Seventy-seven percent of drug offenders were arrested for a non-drug crime within the nine-year study period. During each year of the study, releasees who had nonviolent convictions were more likely than those with violent convictions to be arrested. Over the entire period, there were an average of five arrests per former prisoner, with 23% of the releasees accounting for over half the arrests. These included new criminal charges as well as arrests for alleged parole violations.

At 45%, the first-year arrest rate for men was higher than for women (35%). Over the nine years, the total arrest rate was 84% for men and 77% for women. By race, the first-year arrest rate was 40% for whites, 47% for Hispanics and 46% for blacks. By the ninth year, 87% of blacks and 81% of white and Hispanic releasees had been arrested.

Just over 50% of the former prisoners convicted of property crimes were arrested in the first year following their release, compared with 39% of releasees convicted of violent crimes, 43% with drug convictions and 41% with public order convictions.

A U.S. Sentencing Commission report on recidivism among federal prisoners, released on January 24, 2019, showed that nearly 64% of prisoners who had been convicted of violent offenses were arrested within eight years compared with about 40% of those convicted of nonviolent offenses. The study, which was based on 25,431 federal prisoners released in 2005, found violent offenders had a higher arrest rate across all age categories – the opposite of the finding for state prisoners.

Why such high arrest rates? A February 2019 report from the California state auditor questioned the effectiveness of the rehabilitation programs used by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. 

“Our analysis of inmates released from prison in fiscal year 2015-16 did not find an overall relationship between inmates completing CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) rehabilitation programs and their recidivism rates,” said State Auditor Elaine Howle. “In fact, inmates who completed their recommended CBT rehabilitation programs recidivated at about the same rate as inmates who were not assigned to those rehabilitation programs.” 

Howle noted prisoners often were not placed on the program waiting lists, and the lists were not correctly prioritized according to needs. She also cited a lack of metrics for the programs and high program staff vacancy rates. 

On May 18, 2018, the Council of Economic Advisers, a federal agency, issued a report on the costs of crime and effectiveness of rehabilitation programs. The report found “evidence that certain individual programs can reduce crime as well as reduce spending by lowering long-run incarceration costs. Programs that save at least one dollar in crime and incarceration costs for every dollar spent are deemed cost effective.” However, the effectiveness of other programs was questionable “where the evidence base is inconsistent and rates of return more uncertain.”

So long as prison officials dedicate only a fraction of their budget to rehabilitative programs, high recidivism rates should come as no surprise. However, it should be noted that the recidivism studies by the Department of Justice and U.S. Sentencing Commission only examined arrest rates, and not all arrests resulted in convictions nor did all convictions result in re-incarceration. 



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