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Justice Department Releases Ten-Year Recidivism Study

Follows a half-million state prisoners released in 2008

by Matt Clarke

From 2016 through 2019, the last years for which reliable data are available, about 10.5 million arrests were made in the U.S. annually. Averaged over a decade, that’s less than one arrest for every three people. But a new study shows how previous incarceration increases those odds many-fold: Ten years after release, 82% of state prisoners had been arrested again—an average of nearly seven arrests each.

The majority of those prisoners, 62%, had also returned to prison. Those are just two takeaways from a ten-year study of prisoner recidivism released in September 2021 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the U.S. Department of Justice.

The study used a stratified random sample of 73,600 prisoners to interpolate estimates for approximately 409,300 state prisoners released in 2008 by 24 states—containing 65.8% of the U.S. population as of January 2022—which were those providing necessary records: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Included were prisoners whose current conviction was for homicide, rape or sexual assault. Excluded were all whose sentences were for less than one year.

Of those arrested during their first decade post-release, about 16% were picked up outside the state that released them. Around 43% were arrested within a year of release and 66% by the end of the third year. Nearly half of those were picked up for a property crime or drug offense. Probation and parole violations were insignificant drivers of these arrests, the study emphasized, noting that 98% of arrests were for other offenses.

Accounting for the majority of arrests was a group with criminal histories that included ten or more prior arrests (48.9%), as well as those with five to nine prior arrests (29.6%). Only 21.5% had four or fewer priors, including just under 10% with one or two.

The age at first arrest for 32.9% was 18-19, for 29.4% it was 17 or younger, and for 23%, 20-24. Only 1.7% had first been arrested at 40 or older.

As might be expected, those with the most prior arrests were the most likely to be arrested during the next ten years. But age was strongly correlated to arrest rate, with the youngest releasees being arrested at more than twice the rate of the oldest.

Drug crimes accounted for 30.3% of the released prisoners’ most serious commitment offense, compared to 29.6% for property crimes, 24.5% for violent crimes and 15.7% for crimes against public order.

Arrest rates post-release were strongly correlated to the most serious commitment offense, with the lowest ten-year arrest rates for those arrested for homicide (57.4%), rape/sexual assault (62.8%) and non-trafficking or non-possession drug crimes (79.4%). The highest ten-year arrest rates were for weapons crimes (87.4%), property crimes (86.7%) and drug possession (83.0%).

Males were more likely to be arrested within the first year than females, 44% v. 34%. However, the difference in arrest rates narrowed by year ten to 83% for men and 76% for women.

During the first year, Blacks (45%) and Hispanics (44%) were arrested at similar rates which were higher than that of Whites (40%). By year five, Hispanics (73%) had been arrested at similar rates to Whites (72%), but at lower rates than Blacks (79%). This disparity held through the tenth year, when the arrest rates were 86% for Blacks, 80% for Whites and 79% for Hispanics.

The sample included 364,200 men and 45,100 women. The racial breakdown included 161,400 Whites, 151,700 Blacks, and 86,100 Hispanics. By age, 62,700 were under 25, 206,000 25-39, and 140,600 over 39 with 124,600 of 40-54 and only 2,300 over 64.

Not every arrest was for a new crime—about 2% were for parole or probation violations—just as not every arrest led to a conviction, and not every conviction led to reincarceration. But there were a few demographic indicators by the end of the study:

• 62% of male releasees had been returned to prison, compared to 47% of females;

• 63% of Blacks had been reincarcerated compared to 59% of Whites and 60% of Hispanics;

• 30.7% had returned to prison a year after release, 48.6% by year three and 60.7% by year ten.

What this study lays out in stark terms is the fact that an arrest is the strongest driver of a future re-arrest. “Repeated arrests,” as noted by the Prison Policy Initiative, “are related to race and poverty, as well as high rates of mental illness and substance use disorders.” There are far better ways to address these social, economic and health problems than through incarceration.  

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prison Policy Initiative

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