Why The Substantial Difference Between State and Federal Prison Recidivism?

Observations

Federal Inmates: 15% of offenders released from federal prison in 2012 returned to federal prison within 3 years of release.

State Inmates: 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.

Why is there such a vast difference between federal and state recidivism?

Author

Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.

Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Post-Masters’ Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University.

Article

This is our second article asking why there is a substantial difference between the recidivism rates for federal and state offenders.

The first is titled, “Why The Vast Difference Between State and Federal Prison Recidivism? see Crime in America-Recidivism-Difference Between Feds and States, using data from the Federal Sentencing Commission. The first report is summarized below.

It’s based on arrests and returns to prison.

This article is based on data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the US Department of Justice.

It’s based on returns to prison.

Previous Article Summation Based on Federal Sentencing Data

Federal offenders (in eight years) had less than half the returns to prison than states (after five years).

Over an eight-year follow-up period, almost one-half of federal offenders (49.3%) were rearrested for a new crime or rearrested for a violation of supervision conditions compared to 76.6% of all state prisoners after five years.

Over two-thirds (76.9%) of state drug offenders released from state prison were rearrested within five years, compared to 41.9% of federal drug trafficking offenders released from prison over the same five-year period.

It may be possible that the length of incarceration (federal inmates serve 85 percent of much longer sentences) is the primary variable in less federal recidivism.

New Article Based on Bureau of Justice Statistics Data

Federal Inmates: 15% of offenders released from federal prison in 2012 returned to federal prison within 3 years of release.

State Inmates: 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, see Crime in America-Recidivism Overview.

Charts Documenting Federal Recidivism

Federal and State Justice Systems Are Different

Why is there a vast difference between state and federal recidivism?

The first thing to understand is that there are considerable differences between the federal and state correctional systems.

There are also differences between the arrest priorities of federal and state law enforcement efforts.

Federal Prisons: Most inmates in the federal prison system serve 85 percent (or more) of longer sentences, which makes an older age upon release a factor in recidivism. Age plus criminal history are the two primary variables when calculating recidivism.

Drug offenses were the most prevalent offense type of prisoners in federal prison on September 30, 2014.

Prisoners with a drug offense as the most serious commitment offense made up 49% of the prison population in 2014, down from 56% in 2004.

The share of violent offenders in federal prison decreased from 8% in 2004 to 7% in 2014.

Immigration offenders made up 10% of the prison population in 2014, decreasing from 12% of the prison population in 2004.

State Prisons: Inmates in state systems serve shorter percentages of smaller sentences when compared to the federal system.

More than half of all state prisoners were serving sentences for violent offenses (704,800 prisoners or 53%), including 165,600 persons for murder or nonnegligent manslaughter and 166,200 for rape or sexual assault.

Almost 16% of state prisoners were convicted drug offenders (208,000 inmates).

Federal Arrests: 1.9 percent of federal arrests are for violent crimes, 2.1 percent are for sex crimes and 4.2 percent are for weapons offenses. 46 percent are immigration violations and 16 percent are drug crimes.

State Arrests: Nationwide, law enforcement made an estimated 13,120,947 arrests (except traffic violations) in 2010. Of these arrests, 552,077 were for violent crimes and 1,643,962 were for property crimes.

The highest number of arrests was for drug abuse violations (estimated at 1,638,846 arrests), driving under the influence (estimated at 1,412,223), and larceny-theft (estimated at 1,271,410).

Why the Difference Between Federal and State Inmate Recidivism?

First, we acknowledge that state and federal criminal justice systems are different from each other in terms of who is arrested and incarcerated. The most obvious differences are the immigration priority of the federal government and the state focus on violent crime.

But I’m unsure as to how that difference plays out as to recidivism. We previously compared the recidivism of a variety of state offenders; the crime upon release just doesn’t seem to make that much of a difference. Age upon release plus criminal history and possibly sex seem to be the main drivers of recidivism, see Recidivism by Crime. Note that for federal offenders (table 21-above), the crime upon release does make a difference; violent offenders recidivate more.

A previous article, “Do Longer Prison Sentences Reduce Recidivism? Federal Drug Trafficking Recidivism is Much Lower Than State Returns,” at Crime in America-Federal Drug Recidivism, cites United States Sentencing Commission data suggesting that longer sentences may reduce crime upon release.

This is what the Federal Sentencing Commission said:

Recidivism Among Federal Drug Trafficking Offenders older age at release of those receiving longer mandatory minimum penalties may be at least one factor explaining the link between drug mandatory minimum penalties and recidivism.

 There was little apparent association between the length of imprisonment and recidivism. However, once criminal history category is accounted for, the length of the sentence originally imposed was associated with lower rates of recidivism, Crime in America-Federal Drug Recidivism.

That said, after publishing the article in Crime in America.Net, several commenters suggested that it’s the quality of treatment programs within the federal system that account for the difference.

But we are unaware of data suggesting that the length, quality, and quantity of programs offered in the Federal Bureau of Prisons is any different than those offered in state systems.

We are also aware of the limited effect treatment programs have, and when they work, the results rarely exceed ten percent, see Crime in America-Nothing Works Well.

Summary

If there is no data documenting the difference between federal and state treatment programs in prison, and if the current track record of programs is marginal at best, and if violent and nonviolent state offenders have roughly the same rates of recidivism, nothing explains the vast difference between federal and state recidivism except for serving a higher percentage of sentence for longer sentences thus producing an older person upon release.

What we said in the previous article on federal drug trafficking:

If we are correct, federal drug trafficking inmates served longer sentences and were older upon release; we are all aware that age at release is correlated to recidivism.

We also suspect that state inmates have more serious and complex criminal histories than federal prisoners.

If you look at current data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 46.4 are drug offenders and 15.5 are violent offenders. Most state prison inmates are either violent (53 percent), multi-repeat felons, or both.

We have no reason to suggest that our earlier analysis would be any different than what’s offered above.

It may be possible that the length of incarceration (federal inmates serve 85 percent of much longer sentences) is the primary variable in less federal recidivism.

Sources

Federal Justice Statistics

Federal Justice Statistics-Statistical Tables

Felony Defendants in Large Urban Counties

Crime in America at http://crimeinamerica.net

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  1. […] It’s interesting that the rearrests and re-incarceration rates are much lower for the federal prison system when compared to states, see, State and Federal Recidivism. […]