Offender Recidivism: Do Violent Offenders Recidivate More?


The mast majority of offenders released from state prison return to the criminal justice system based on arrests, convictions, and incarcerations.

The crime upon conviction 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.

Can prison rehabilitation or community corrections programs reduce these numbers?  The current answer is yes, but not by much.


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.


We have a question regarding recidivism; do violent offenders recidivate more than non-violent offenders? Is recidivism based on criminal history or other factors?

Some Basics

Recidivism and measures of recidivism are endlessly debated. Please note the following for a better understanding as to what we mean by recidivism:

I use measures of state recidivism as recorded by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, US Department of Justice for my analysis.

Every national research project defines recidivism as a person released from prison who is rearrested, reconvicted or reincarcerated. Some state or local jurisdictions will measure reincarcerations only which, inevitably, result in fewer numbers than arrests.

There are additional studies regarding recidivism and probation. Probation recidivism is much less than returns from prison.

For a review of federal and state recidivism data, see Major Recidivism Data. Note that there is a considerable difference between federal and state recidivism, see Federal and State Recidivism.

The first thing to understand about those released from state prisons is that the vast majority (77 percent) are rearrested and 55 percent are reincarcerated.

Most offenders are not specialists; they are rearrested for a wide variety of crimes, see Recidivism-Arrests.

So the first thing we acknowledge is that the vast majority of released offenders recidivate. I have seen three-year data from states showing that as many as 85 percent of those mandatorily released (not paroled) were rearrested for another crime.

Recidivism is principally driven by criminal history and age upon release.  The younger you are at release, and the more arrests and convictions you have, the greater your chances for a return to the justice system.

Note that the majority of crime (including violent crimes) are not reported to police, and two out of every five reported crimes involve an arrest, thus measures of recidivism are undercounts.

Some may object to the use of arrests as a measure of recidivism; being arrested does not mean that you will be convicted or reincarcerated. 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 Federal and State Recidivism.

The overwhelming number of criminal cases in the United States use plea-bargains allowing offenders to plead to a less serious crime in return for a guilty plea, or to have other charges dropped. Thus there are people listed as property or drug or public order offenders who originally had a violent or more serious charge.

Recidivism and Arrests-There Are Differences By Crime Categories.

You can see from the chart above that property offenders (82.1) are rearrested more than drug (76.9) or violent offenders (71.3), but the overall differences are rather small.

The distribution of crimes is considerable. Yes, there is a difference between violent offenders arrested for another violent crime (33.1 percent) and property offenders arrested for violent crime (28.5 percent) and all released offenders arrested for violent crime (28.6 percent) but most categories fall into the 29-30 percent range except for drug offenders (24.8 percent) rearrested for a violent crime.

From the chart, we can conclude that predicting recidivism by crime doesn’t help much as to who returns to the criminal justice system. Offenders are generalists and are arrested for a wide variety of crimes.

Recidivism and Arrests-There Are Differences For Specific Crimes

There are minor differences when looking at arrests for specific crimes (chart below).

When reviewing types of violent crimes, you can see that those convicted of assault (77.1 percent) were far more likely to be rearrested when compared to other violent categories, such as homicide (51.2 percent), but this is probably due to sentence length and age upon release more than the specific crime (homicides carry much longer sentences than assaults).

Larceny and motor vehicle theft offenders (84.1 percent) were rearrested more than those convicted of burglary (82.8 percent), but the difference is minimal.

Beyond homicides and their longer sentences and order age upon release, yes, there are differences based on crime, but they are minor except for driving while intoxicated charges, and even there, almost 60 percent are rearrested.

The lesson? The mast majority of those sent to prison will recidivate, regardless of crime.

There are criminologists that state that those committing murder have the lowest rate of recidivism which is concurrently true via the data presented, but false based on the length of sentence and age upon release.

This is what the Federal Sentencing Commission said about longer sentences and recidivism: 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, see Length of Sentence.

Recidivism and Arrests-Criminal History

I previously said that there are two major components of recidivism, age upon release and criminal history

Those with ten or more arrests  (86.5) have more recidivism than those with five to nine arrests (75.9) or those with four or fewer arrests (60.8). Criminal history seems to be a major determinant when predicting recidivism.

Recidivism and Arrests-Age-Sex-Race-Does It Make a Difference?

You can see from the chart below that males (72.5 percent) have a slight lead over females (62.9 percent) and that recidivism by race is somewhat even (three to five percent higher for blacks), but it’s age upon release that is startlingly different with those 24 or younger upon release (78.2 percent) have a huge lead over those 40 or older (62.9 percent). Having said that, the other three age categories are all above 70 percent.  Note that in this chart, recidivism is based on three years, not five like the charts above.

Federal Recidivism Data Provides a Different Conclusion

It’s interesting that recidivism based on crime provides a different conclusion if you look at federal offenses. Per the chart below, violent offenders recidivate (return to prison) more than non-violent offenders after release from federal prison after three years. Note that the percent returned (15 percent after three years) is much lower than state returns (50 percent after three years).  Note that the above charts track arrests and the data below only includes returns to prison.

The great bulk of federal crimes are not violent, see Federal Crimes. Considering this, it’s possible that federal violent crimes are conspiracy related with connections to crimes that are a federal priority (i.e., immigration and drugs) and that state violent crimes are often “heat of passion, interpersonal” (non-stranger) crimes.


The bottom line is that the vast majority of state offenders released from prison return to the criminal justice system based on arrests, convictions, and incarcerations.

The crime upon conviction 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.

Note that the final chart provides recidivism for federal offenses and there, violent offenders recidivate more that most non-violent offenders. The federal system and inmates are considerably different when compared to state prison systems and inmates. For example, most state inmates are violent where federal prisons contain a small percent of violent offenders.

In any conversation of recidivism, the question inevitably turns to improving the dreadful percentage of returns to the justice system. Can prison rehabilitation or community corrections programs reduce these numbers?

The current answer is yes, but not by much.  When programs are successful (some are not) they routinely offer reductions in the ten percent range or less, which means that the vast majority return to the justice system. It’s like your doctor telling you that ninety percent of your cancer remains after an operation. Would you view the operation as a success?

Fixing rehabilitation programs is the greatest challenge in criminology. If we don’t succeed in improving results, or if we don’t exclude some crimes from prosecution (sentencing reform) the only alternative is mass incarceration.

Many states are choosing not to revoke offenders on supervision for multiple technical violations, resulting in better numbers, but that won’t improve public safety based on the numbers offered.



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