Offender Recidivism: What Works-What’s Hogwash

Prison cells


We may be making progress as to reducing recidivism in the United States.


Leonard Adam 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

New Document from The Council of State Governments

This article reviews a new document from The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center reviewing “recidivism” in seven states.

We will provide some context as to the current state of programmatic efforts before discussing the new report.


Recidivism based on arrests, convictions, and re-incarcerations is the gold standard as to measuring how well a criminal justice agency is doing.

What is a valid indicator of recidivism? From a United States Sentencing Commission report: To the extent that the rearrest event is an accurate indicator of relapse into criminal behavior, excluding events due to non-conviction or non-incarceration will result in underestimation of recidivism, see Crime in America-Federal Recidivism.

Anything less than an emphasis on arrests, convictions, and incarcerations as measurement tools is suspect due to agency manipulation (i.e., lessening standards).

Programs for offenders are crucial to decreasing the fiscal burdens on states and for reducing future criminality. Many support programs not because they work well (they don’t), but we have no choice if we are going to reduce reliance on prisons or additional sanctions.

Either we make programs work by a mass investment in research and program implementation, or mass incarceration is our only option beyond sentencing reform (i.e., decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana, shorter sentences, etc.).


Jurisdictions have claimed massive reductions in recidivism (up to 50 percent) only to back away from those claims when placed under scrutiny. An example is Virginia.

Virginia compared inmate recidivism rates across the country and guess who came out on top? Virginia!

 No, seriously, they did the first state-to-state comparison of returns from prison. They won! They have the lowest rate of recidivism and they claim to have done it with programs.

They maintain a re-incarceration rate of 23.4 percent after three years.

 Wait, it gets better. This is after two major studies over the course of six years from the US Department of Justice that claimed a 50 percent return to prison, see Crime in America-Recidivism Studies. The 50 percent finding mimics every other recidivism study I’ve seen, including other Department of Justice funded studies when programs were applied.

 Why someone hasn’t nominated the Governor for the Nobel Prize is beyond my comprehension.

 Look, this is the equivalent of curing cancer or ending unemployment. It’s the finding of a lifetime. I’m amazed that this didn’t make the national news.

 If emulated, it partially solves the crime problem. It will save states and the federal government billions of dollars.

 Virginia is now encouraged (or obligated) to teach the rest of us what we are doing wrong.

 If it’s true. Crime in America-Virginia Recidivism

Public Safety or Fiscal Realities?

Virginia isn’t the only state to be challenged for its recidivism claims. And that’s the difficulty of discussing recidivism; too many jurisdictions claiming success they don’t deserve.

Look, the criminal justice system desperately needs to bring down rates of recidivism. Governors are screaming that corrections takes too much of state budgets. Every governor has had “the talk” with her correctional people to reduce costs.

Thus claims of reduced recidivism are immediately analyzed within the context of cost reductions. Anyone can reduce recidivism by lowering standards.

A theoretical example: so instead of 20 technical violations as a threshold for sending a person back to prison or court, we raise the threshold to 40 violations. Walla, a 50 percent reduction.

Recidivism-Most Released From Prison Go Back to Prison

The most common understanding of recidivism is based on data from the US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, stating that two-thirds (68 percent) of prisoners released were arrested for a new crime within three years of release from prison, and three-quarters (77 percent) were arrested within five years.

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.

Thus when jurisdictions claim massive reductions in recidivism, we tend to compare their claims to this (and other) data and shake our heads. We’re hopeful, but not optimistic.

Additional Data:

The Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative (SVORI) was the federal government’s primary effort using evidence-based tactics and programs to reduce recidivism. It showed few (if any) positive results.

Go to the federal government’s Crime Solutions.Gov database and plug in “recidivism.” There are few prison or parole and probation efforts marked as “effective,” see

Per a survey from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, money for treatment for probation caseloads is almost nonexistent. It was 1 percent in 2005. It was 1 percent in 2015. That’s not to say that some probationers don’t get treatment, but if they do, it comes from external sources, see Crime in America-Probation.

I cannot remember any US Department of Justice data indicating that programs for offenders in prison or parole and probation that rose above ten percent in terms of their current sentence.

When programs are offered to offenders, some work, some don’t and some make things worse. When they do work, the results are generally below a ten percent reduction, see Crime in America-Nothing Works Well.

There is no indication that the massive caseload ratios of parole and probation agents have been reduced. 100-200 offenders to every parole and probation agent ratios are not unusual.

I am unaware of any data stating that the use of risk instruments to select the “real” threats to public safety is any better than flipping a coin. Risk instruments are the heart and soul of caseload management.

In summary, if there are few programs for offenders, and the track record of the programs that exist is not encouraging, what are we to make of new claims for significant recidivism reduction?

If 77 percent of offenders released from prison are rearrested, and we all understand that this is an undercount due to underreporting of crimes, and the fact that two out of every five reported crimes are solved, then how are we to evaluate claims of reduced recidivism? See Crime in America-Rearrests.

Reducing Recidivism-New Report

“Reducing Recidivism” was recently offered by The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center.

It’s beautifully written and presented which makes it stand apart from many (most?) government publications.

It highlights seven states in which recidivism has significantly decreased according to several measures.

These same states have also experienced reductions in violent crime rates over the last decade. But most states experienced reductions in violent crime (before 2015) regardless of interventions.

The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center is a national nonprofit organization. The National Reentry Resource Center (NRRC) was established in2008 by the Second Chance Act and is administered by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.

From the report: Efforts to reduce recidivism are grounded in the ability to accurately and consistently collect and analyze various forms of data. To that end, states have developed increasingly sophisticated and comprehensive recidivism tracking methods. By improving the accuracy and consistency of data collection, using more timely measures, and expanding the types of recidivism metrics that are tracked as well as the populations to which these metrics are applied, states are now better positioned to understand and respond to recidivism trends.

This brief highlights seven states in which recidivism has significantly decreased according to several different measures. These same states have also experienced reductions in violent crime rates over the last decade.

Our Assessment

As a former manager of public affairs for two state correctional and law enforcement systems, I would not hesitate to place the findings below into public discussion. All measures of recidivism are valid as long as the public understands the limitations of the data.

There is nothing here that causes me ethical concerns. If I represented Texas, I would move forward with these findings.

What follows is my appraisal of the data.

Reduction in Technical Violations

Many states report significant reductions in technical violations.

First, we do not place much confidence as to reductions in technical violations. As stated, states are under enormous fiscal pressure to reduce revocations. In social media forums, the most common refrain from parole and probation agents is that they do not enforce the same standards as in past years; they are told to overlook many violations.

In the past, we revoked too many people. When I worked for the Maryland Department of Public safety, seventy percent of our prison intakes were parole and probation violators. Agents took every opportunity to “cut their losses” by getting rid of offenders causing them problems. This was wrong.

But as I said earlier; so instead of 20 technical violations as a threshold for sending a person back to prison or court, we raise the threshold to 40 violations, which produces a substantial reduction in revocations (and short-term costs).

Reducing revocations is an improvement from 70 percent of your prison intakes being revocations, but claiming a reduction in “recidivism” may be a stretch.

Comparison Years

Many of the states mentioned have huge numbers of comparison years, with benchmark years starting in 2006 (Colorado), 2001 (Arizona) 2003 (Michigan), 2003 (North Carolina), 2004 (South Carolina) and 2004 (Texas).

This strikes me as “cherry picking” high years to compare results. You can prove anything if you include enough years.

There are states with one-year comparisons (parole rearrests-Michigan). One-year comparisons are simply not long enough to offer a meaningful conclusion.

Reasons Why

The report lacks specific reasons as to why “recidivism” was reduced. Broader policy initiatives were offered.

Convictions Versus Arrests

There are large numbers of offenders who are never prosecuted for their arrests, see Crime in America-Prosecutions. Convictions should be concurrently offered with arrest data. You can’t have meaningful comparisons without including both.

Smaller Results

North Carolina Offered a 7 percent reduction based on a two-year re-incarceration based on prison releases. A seven percent reduction based on two years is encouraging but hardly conclusive.

Reasons for Hope

If you can get beyond the vast length in comparison years and the other issues offered above, there are reasons for optimism:

Arizona had a 21 percent reduction in re-incarcerations based on probationers with on new felony convictions within a two-year period. Note that a finding that included a three-year timeframe (industry standard) that offered felony arrests along with convictions would have made the results far more powerful.

Colorado had a 23 percent reduction in re-incarceration rates within three years based on new crimes.

Michigan offered a 20 percent reduction based on new felony convictions for probationers with three years of data. The results would be stronger if based on arrest data.

South Carolina offered a 21 percent reduction in people returning to prison after three years. Arrest and conviction data would make the findings far more powerful. I assume that this includes revocation numbers.

Texas offered a 25 percent reduction after three years for those returning to prison (I assume that this includes revocation data) but there was only a 6 percent reduction in arrests based on three years. The obvious question, if arrests went down by only 6 percent, how did we get to a 25 percent reduction in returns to prison?


We may be making progress as to reducing recidivism in the United States.

We need extraordinary, precise research based on multiple factors.

We need national standards as to implementation. We need political and financial support and the public’s backing.

Hopefully, within my lifetime, we will see every inmate and every person on community supervision have access to the effective, research-based programs that they need.

Without that progress, and without sentencing reform, all we have left is mass incarceration.

With violent crime increasing that means prisons will become unmanageable.

The time to act is now. The report from the Council of State Governments is an important but limited step forward.


Council of State Governments-Recidivism

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