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By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Thirty-five years of supervising public affairs for national and state criminal justice agencies. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Management for the National Crime Prevention Council. Post Master’s degree-Johns Hopkins University.
Crime in America.Net-Updated in November of 2014, July of 2016 and December of 2016.
The landing page for links to previous recidivism studies from the US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics is available at Federal Recidivism Studies.
There is a December of 2016 study that re-examines arrest data (from a study mentioned below) to provide clarity as to the types of crimes committed by those returning from prison, see Few Criminals Are Specialists.
This article started with a reader’s request in 2010; she asked about recidivism of people released from prison (arrests, convictions, returns to prison). The report below summarizes the principle studies:
Federal Offender Recidivism-June of 2016
Of the nearly 43,000 federal offenders who were placed on federal community supervision in fiscal year 2005, an estimated 43 percent were arrested at least once within five years of their placement per the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
During their criminal careers prior to being placed on federal community supervision in 2005, these offenders were arrested approximately 210,000 times.
Federal law enforcement agencies accounted for approximately 24% of all prior arrests. State and local law enforcement agencies were responsible for the other 76% of prior arrests.
Almost 45% of federal offenders placed on community supervision in 2005 had 4 or more prior arrests.
An estimated 18 percent of these offenders were arrested at least once within one year of placement on community supervision and 35 percent were arrested at least once within three years of placement.
An estimated 80 percent of offenders who were placed on federal community supervision in 2005 were male. More than a third (41 percent) were white and nearly a third (31 percent) were black. An estimated 28 percent were age 29 or younger and about 42 percent were age 40 or older.
Among federal offenses, public order offenses, such as probation violations, accounted for 90 percent of first arrests of federal offenders after placement on community supervision, compared to 33 percent of first arrests for nonfederal offenses.
In comparing federal and state prisoners placed on community supervision, almost half (47 percent) of federal prisoners were arrested within five years, compared to more than three-quarters (77 percent) of state prisoners.
Nearly a third (32 percent) of federal prisoners returned to prison within five years of their release to community supervision, compared to more than half (59 percent) of the state prisoners.
Nearly a quarter (23 percent) of federal offenders on community supervision were directly sentenced to probation, while more than three-quarters (77 percent) began a term of community supervision following release from prison.
An estimated 70 percent of federal offenders on community supervision had at least one prior nonfederal arrest, and more than a third (35 percent) had four or more prior nonfederal arrests.
The report, Recidivism of Offenders Placed on Federal Community Supervision in 2005: Patterns from 2005 to 2010 is available at http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/ropfcs05p0510.pdf
April, 2014 study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics Following Prison Releases for Three and Five Years:
An estimated two-thirds (68 percent) of 405,000 prisoners released in 30 states in 2005 were arrested for a new crime within three years of release from prison, and three-quarters (77 percent) were arrested within five years, per the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).
More than a third (37 percent) of prisoners who were arrested within five years of release were arrested within the first six months after release, with more than half (57 percent) arrested by the end of the first year.
These findings are based on a BJS data collection, Recidivism of State Prisoners Released in 2005, which tracked a sample of former prison inmates from 30 states for five years following release in 2005.
During the five years after release, prisoners in the study were arrested about 1.2 million times across the country. A sixth (16 percent) of released prisoners were responsible for nearly half (48 percent) of the arrests. About two in five (42 percent) released prisoners were either not arrested or were arrested no more than once in the five years after release.
The longer released prisoners went without being arrested, the less likely they were to be arrested at all during the follow-up period. For example, 43 percent of released prisoners were arrested within one year of release, compared to 13 percent of those not arrested by the end of year four who were arrested in the fifth year after release.
Among prisoners released in 2005 in 23 states with available data on inmates returned to prison, about half (50 percent) had either a parole or probation violation or an arrest for a new crime within three years that led to imprisonment, and more than half (55 percent) had a parole or probation violation or an arrest within five years that led to imprisonment.
Recidivism rates varied with the attributes of the inmate. Prisoners released after serving time for a property offense were the most likely to recidivate. Within five years of release, 82 percent of property offenders were arrested for a new crime, compared to 77 percent of drug offenders, 74 percent of public order offenders and 71 percent of violent offenders.
Released prisoners who were incarcerated for a violent, property or drug crime were more likely than other released inmates to be arrested for a similar type of crime. Regardless of the incarceration offense, the majority (58 percent) of released prisoners were arrested for a public order offense within five years of release. An estimated 39 percent of released prisoners were arrested within five years for a drug offense, 38 percent for a property offense and 29 percent for a violent offense.
Recidivism was highest among males, blacks and young adults. By the end of the fifth year after release, more than three-quarters (78 percent) of males and two-thirds (68 percent) of females were arrested, a 10 percentage point difference that remained relatively stable during the entire 5-year follow-up period.
Five years after release from prison, black offenders had the highest recidivism rate (81 percent), compared to Hispanic (75 percent) and white (73 percent) offenders.
Recidivism rates declined with age. Within five years of release, 84 percent of inmates who were age 24 or younger at release were arrested for a new offense, compared to 79 percent of inmates ages 25 to 39 and 69 percent of those age 40 or older.
The arrest of former prisoners after release increased with the extent of their criminal history. Within five years of release, 61 percent of released inmates with four or fewer arrests in their prior criminal history were arrested, compared to 86 percent of those who had 10 or more prior arrests.
Many inmates had multi-state criminal history records. About a tenth (11 percent) of prisoners had an arrest within five years of release in a state other than the one that released them, and nearly a quarter (25 percent) of the released prisoners had a prior out-of-state arrest.
Return to Prison
Classified a person as a recidivist when an arrest resulted in a conviction with a disposition of a prison sentence or when the offender was returned to prison without a new conviction because of a technical violation of his or her release, such as failing a drug test or missing an appointment with a parole officer.
Within 3 years of release, 49.7% of inmates either had an arrest that resulted in a conviction with a disposition of a prison sentence or were returned to prison without a new conviction because they violated a technical condition of their release, as did 55.1% of inmates within 5 years of release.
These findings from the recidivism study on prisoners released in 2005 in 30 states and tracked to 2010 cannot be directly compared to the previous BJS study on prisoners released in 1994 in 15 states due to changes in the demographic characteristics and criminal histories of the U.S. prison population, an increase in the number of states in the study and improvements made to the quality and completeness of the nation’s criminal history records since the mid-1990s.
The report, Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 30 States in 2005: Patterns from 2005 to 2010 (NCJ 244205), can be found on the BJS website at Federal Recidivism Studies.
April, 2011 study from Pew:
Another study on recidivism (defined for this report as a return to prison) was offered by the Pew Center on the States, Pew Safety Performance Project and released in April, 2011.
The study analyzed returns to prison for 33 states for those released in 1999 and 41 states for those released in 2004 making the study the most comprehensive analysis of returns to prison ever done.
The report compared earlier studies on recidivism conducted by the US Department of Justice for 15 states for releases in 1983 and 1994 and concluded that recidivism rates “have consistently remained around 40 percent.” California was excluded from this finding due to that state’s large percentage of the nation’s prison population and the fact that California’s rate of return to prison is traditionally high.
The report singles out three states, Oregon, Michigan and Missouri for lowering rates of return to prison.
June 2002 study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics Following Prison Releases for Three Years:
Before the Pew report there was nothing of a national and substantive nature except for a US Department of Justice study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics that was released in June of 2002 based on inmates released from prison in 1994.
Note that there are a variety of older studies from the Bureau of Justice Statistics that remains definitive for many years. This study involved a very large set of data from 15 states and the methodology (quality of the research) was very good. This is the most quoted recidivism study in the country.
It followed offenders for three years and tracked results.
The study (see summary below) found that:
Two-thirds (sixty-seven percent) of offenders were arrested for “serious” crimes.
Fifty-two percent of the offenders were returned to prison for “serious” crimes and technical violations (they didn’t follow the rules of their release after prison).
Summary of 2002 Study:
Sixty-seven percent of former inmates released from state prisons in 1994 committed at least one serious new crime within the following three years.
This was a rearrest rate 5 percent higher than that among prisoners released during 1983.
State prisoners with the highest rearrest rates were those who had been incarcerated for stealing motor vehicles (79 percent), possessing or selling stolen property (77 percent), larceny (75 percent), burglary (74 percent), robbery (70 percent) or those using, possessing or trafficking in illegal weapons (70 percent).
Those with the lowest rearrest rates were former inmates who had been in prison for homicide (41 percent), sexual assault (41 percent), rape (46 percent) or driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol (51 percent).
About 1 percent of the released prisoners who had served time for murder were arrested for another homicide within three years, and about 2 percent of the rapists were arrested for another rape within that period.
Within three years, 52 percent of the 272,111 released prisoners were back in prison either because of a new crime or because they had violated their parole conditions (e.g., failed a drug test, missed a parole office appointment).
Men were more likely to be rearrested than were women (68 percent, compared to 58 percent), blacks more likely than whites (73 percent vs. 63 percent) and non-Hispanics more than Hispanics (71 percent vs. 65 percent).
Younger prisoners and those with longer records were also more likely to be rearrested.
Post-prison recidivism was strongly related to arrest history.
Among prisoners with one arrest prior to their release, 41 percent were rearrested. Of those with two prior arrests, 47 percent were rearrested. Of those with three earlier arrests, 55 percent were rearrested. Among those with more than 15 prior arrests, that is about 18 percent of all released prisoners, 82 percent were rearrested within the three-year period.
The 272,111 inmates had accumulated more than 4.1 million arrest charges prior to their current imprisonment and acquired an additional 744,000 arrest charges in the 3 years following their discharge in 1994 – an average of about 18 criminal arrest charges per offender during their criminal careers.
These charges included almost 21,000 homicides, 200,000 robberies, 50,000 rapes and sexual assaults and almost 300,000 assaults.
Almost 8 percent of all released prisoners were rearrested for a new crime in a state other than the one that released them. These alleged offenders were charged with committing 55,760 new crimes in states other than the imprisoning state within the three-year period. New York, Arizona and California had the most arrests of out-of-state offenders in this study.
The data were from the largest recidivism study ever conducted in the United States, which tracked prisoners discharged in 15 states representing two-thirds of all state prisoners released in 1994.
They were 91 percent male, 50 percent white, 48 percent black, 24 percent Hispanic (of any race) and 44 percent were younger than 30 years old.
Most of them had been in prison for felonies: 22 percent for a violent offense (such as murder, rape, sexual assault or robbery), 33 percent for a serious property offense (mostly burglary, motor vehicle theft or fraud), 33 percent for a drug offense (primarily drug trafficking or possession) and 10 percent for public order offenses (mainly drunk driving or weapons crimes).
Most former convicts were rearrested shortly after getting out of prison: 30 percent within six months, 44 percent within a year, 59 percent within two years and 67 percent by the end of three years.
The study findings are based upon the prison and criminal records of an estimated 272,111 discharged prisoners in 15 states who were tracked through fingerprints records made at various points of contact with the justice system, both within the state in which they had served time and other states to which they traveled.
The BJS special report, “Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994” is available at http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=1134
First Study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics-April, 1989:
A previous study titled “Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1983” was released in April of 1989. It was an analysis of the criminal records of more than 16,000 men and women, representing the almost 109,000 offenders who were released from prisons in 11 States during 1983.
The study links correctional data with federal and state criminal history records to provide a complete portrait of criminal careers for more than a half of the State prisoners released.
About 47% of the former prisoners were convicted of a new crime and 41 percent were sent back to prison or jail.
There are a wide variety of state and local studies that also examined recidivism but none with the same large data set (numbers of people followed) and none with the same rigorous methodology.
Main Characteristics of Recidivism:
The study found two primary variables in recidivism which seem to be present in virtually all past and current studies:
Younger prisoners and those with longer records were more likely to be rearrested.
Post-prison recidivism was strongly related to arrest history.
Can these Results be Changed?
Yes. Interventions providing programs for offenders both in and out of prison can lower recidivism. The fundamental question is the significance of the reduction. The research remains unclear as to how well these programs work. See What Works-Crime in America.
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