Is criminal history related to future criminality?

Crime in America.Net

Dear readers: A student asks if recidivism (an offender’s return to prison or higher sanctions)  is connected to criminal history. She is asking whether a lengthy criminal history is a predictor of future criminality.

Her second question is whether programs can have an impact on individuals with an extensive criminal history.

Impact of programs:

As to the impact of programs, the answer is yes with most of the results falling between the 10 to 20 percent range in reductions.  See

The program state-of-the art seems to be that the criminal justice system should reserve its scarce resources for people with extensive criminal histories with the presumption that an impact with this population will have the largest payoff as to crime prevention and control.

Criminal history:

Longer criminal histories have an impact on recidivism ( lengthy histories equal more recidivism) and form the basis for most sentencing decisions. Criminologists will quickly point out that the answer is far more complicated and they are correct (criminal history has to be placed into context by age, drug use, employment, etc.) but the essential answer remains the same.

Results from one study:

The summary below comes from one of the best research operations in the country as to the impact of programs. Research from the Washington State Institute for Public Policy looks at the classification process (judging risk to public safety) to see if the state was accurately identifying  criminal history (finding high risk offenders) and whether or not resources were being directed to this population.

The report acknowledges that this meant that fewer resources to go to lower risk offenders.

Two conclusions:

“The general rise in recidivism over the last 20 years is largely explained by the increasing underlying risk of the offender population. That is, on average, offenders sentenced to DOC today have a greater risk for recidivism than historically.”

“Actual recidivism rates are lower today than they would have been without the policy (and other) changes since 2002…a 17 percent improvement.” Thus the possibility exists that the state of Washington did classify offenders correctly and did direct programs to high risk offenders.

Summary of the Washington State study:

The 1999 Offender Accountability Act (OAA) affects how the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) supervises adult felony offenders in the community. The OAA directs DOC to perform a formal assessment of each offender’s risk for recidivism and then to allocate agency resources accordingly.

The law also requires the Washington State Institute for Public Policy to evaluate the OAA and to provide results by 2010. This report presents our findings on whether the OAA has had an effect on recidivism.

We begin by examining trends in recidivism for all offenders under the jurisdiction of DOC. We find that recidivism rates are higher today than 20 years ago. Since the OAA became fully effective in 2002, however, recidivism rates have either stabilized or decreased.

Question: Has the OAA had a causal influence on the recent improvements in recidivism?

To answer this question, we use Washington’s extensive criminal history data and DOC’s risk assessment scores to “simulate” the probability of recidivism for each offender during the OAA period. We then compare actual and simulated recidivism rates to test the OAA’s causal influence.

Answer: Our research yields two key findings. The general rise in recidivism over the last 20 years is largely explained by the increased underlying risk of DOC’s offender population. That is—on average—offenders today have a greater risk for recidivism than historically.

Since the OAA was implemented, however, something favorable has happened to cause recidivism rates to be lower than expected. Unfortunately, our statistical analysis does not allow us to identify whether this beneficial change can be attributed specifically to the OAA or other policies, or other unknown factors that occurred during the same time period. Regardless, the good news from our evaluation is that, after at least a decade of increasing recidivism, Washington is now beginning to observe improvements in adult felony recidivism.




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