Virginia’s Record Low Recidivism-Nobel Worthy or Shell Game?

Prison Cells


Virginia claims to have the lowest rate of returns to prison in the country.

Virginia maintains a re-incarceration rate of 23.4 percent after three years. 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.


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.


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. According to the Washington Post, Despite successes, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has said that the recidivism rate is still too high for his liking and that Virginia must do more to help offenders be successful upon release.

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.

Is It True?

I’m going to offer a point-by-point analysis and let you decide:

Point One: Mandatory Releases Have the Highest Rates of Recidivism

“How Virginia has achieved lower-than-average recidivism rates is difficult to pin down, experts said. One likely factor, though, is lack of parole.”

“The state did away with parole in 1995 after get-tough-on-crime initiatives by then-Gov. George Allen (R). Prisoners are required to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. By keeping prisoners behind bars longer, the effect is to “age them out of their crime-prone years…” Washington Post

But the problem with that statement is that inmates mandatorily released (serving 85 percent of sentence) and not paroled have much higher rates of recidivism. This is a common finding in many if not most (all?) studies of recidivism. Based on mandatory release alone, Virginia should have a higher rate of recidivism.

Point Two: Where’s the Data on Arrest and Convictions?

Many states and the federal government use standard measures of recidivism. They take a group of inmates released and follow them for three years. They record arrests, convictions and reincarcerations.

Yes, Virginia does this.

“The Virginia Department of Corrections uses similar measures of recidivism for adults as is done for juveniles — rearrest, reconviction, and reincarceration — on a cohort of ex-offenders who are tracked for as long as 3 years,” Virginia Recidivism Report.

So if Virginia has this data, where are the arrest statistics for three years? Where are the conviction statistics? If the governor wants to make a claim of lower recidivism, where is the data everyone else uses? Where are the apples to apples comparisons?

Many believe that arrests are the only pure measure of recidivism, unencumbered by post-arrest judgment calls on the part of government officials.  Per national data, two-thirds of offenders released from prison are rearrested after three years (77 percent after five years). Because we know that most crime is not reported and most reported crime does not end in arrest, the stated percentages are undercounts.

Not reporting arrests or convictions considerably dilutes the impact of any recidivism study.

Point Three: Have Virginia’s Policies Changed?

I previously made the point that arrests are seen by many as the only pure measure of recidivism due to post-arrest discretionary actions on the part of government officials.

A significant component of arrests and reincarcerations are violations of parole and mandatory release supervision while in the community. If you change policies, you dramatically lower all measures of recidivism.

Governors throughout the country are insisting that correctional agencies stay within budget. Correctional budgets are taking an increasingly large percent of state allocations. This fact alone is the driving force of correctional reform in the United States.

The easiest way for correctional agencies to stay within budget is to not revoke so many people on parole and probation supervision. There are an endless number of national advocacy groups encouraging states to do just that.

So we have a person with twenty violations of his community supervision (i.e., drug positives, minor arrests, not obeying stay away orders etc.) and in the past, he would have faced revocation. If we bounce that number up to forty violations, we dramatically increase that person’s odds for “successful” completion of supervision.

Point Four: They Count all Inmates, Right?

“The state recidivism rate of 23.4 percent refers to the re-incarceration rate of offenders who were incarcerated in VADOC facilities. Due to limitations in the capacity of state facilities, some VADOC offenders serve their entire incarceration in a local or regional jail. The number of VADOC offenders who were released from jails without having served time in a VADOC facility rose from one-quarter of total VADOC releases in 2009 to approximately one-half in 2016,” News Article from the Associated Press.

Wait a minute; they only count half their inmates? They house half of their prisoners in local jails? While every other state has to count all or most of their inmates, Virginia is only counting half? This fact alone could make state-to-state comparisons invalid.

Six percent of state prisoners (80,400 inmates) were in the custody of local jails at year-end 2015 per the US Department of Justice.

Point Five: Virginia is Lowering Recidivism Through Programs?

Wow, why didn’t other states think of that? Wait, they did.

All states have programs (but not enough of them) and some have been evaluated. In a nutshell, they barely budge the recidivism meter.

Some work but their percent reductions are mostly ten percent or less. Some show no reductions and others make things worse. So if Virginia’s programs work to dramatically reduce recidivism, that’s yet another reason for the governor to get the national attention he deserves. See Crime in America-Effects of Correctional Programs.

Point Six: Virginia’s Junk Criminal Science

“Virginia’s Junk Criminal Science,” was the title of the article critical of Virginia’s findings (Washington Post Opinion) that brought my attention to their announcement. It appeared in my daily e-mail of Washington Post local news. I said to myself, “Gee, the Washington Post never offers opinion articles in my feed, why this one?”

I assume that it was the Post’s way of saying, politely; that they believe that Virginia’s claim is questionable. I also get national summations of daily crime news and not one mentioned Virginia’s announcement.

In my cursory review of Google for accounts of the announcement, I saw nothing but local accolades. The only one’s posing questions are this gentleman, and what you are reading here.

Final Analysis

So in the final analysis, I can’t say that Virginia isn’t telling the truth. I didn’t conduct the research.  I don’t know the details of their data collection. The state may be right; they may deserve all possible praise.

The media articles covering the event are short; maybe all the above was explained but not reported. Recidivism practices and issues are more complicated than presented, but it would take thirty pages to fully explain everything.

What I do know is that other jurisdictions have made similar claims in the past and have backed away from them over time.

But if I had money to bet, I wouldn’t put it on the state’s claim. There are multitudes of research projects stating that two-thirds of offenders released from prison are rearrested after three years (77 percent after five years) and that 50 percent go to back to prison.

If Virginia is claiming 23.4 after three years, please give the governor a ticker tape parade. But if the national media is staying away from this story, I believe there’s a reason.

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