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Measuring Recidivism

Date Published
February 20, 2008

National Statistics on Recidivism

Bureau of Justice Statistics studies have found high rates of recidivism among released prisoners. Examines the recidivism patterns of former prisoners during a 9-year follow-up period.[1] The researchers found that:

  • The 401,288 state prisoners released in 2005 had 1,994,000 arrests during the 9-year period, an average of 5 arrests per released prisoner. Sixty percent of these arrests occurred during years 4 through 9.
  • An estimated 68% of released prisoners were arrested within 3 years, 79% within 6 years, and 83% within 9 years.
  • Eighty-two percent of prisoners arrested during the 9-year period were arrested within the first 3 years.
  • Almost half (47%) of prisoners who did not have an arrest within 3 years of release were arrested during years 4 through 9.
  • Forty-four percent of released prisoners were arrested during the first year following release, while 24% were arrested during year-9.

Key Considerations

Although recidivism is denoted by a return to crime, criminologists may not have a valid way of measuring whether a crime has occurred. Officially recorded criminal justice events such as arrest conviction are imperfect measures for assessing criminal activity because many crimes are committed without detection.

Another way of assessing criminal activity is to interview study participants and ask them to recall the crimes they have committed. Because of memory decay and other methodological issues, this, too, is an imperfect measurement. As a compromise, recidivism is measured in different ways to see whether the different assessments correspond.

Key considerations involved with measuring recidivism are:

  1. How the study determines that a re-offense has occurred.
  2. When the person recidivates.
  3. How risk is factored into the research design.

How Recidivism Rates Are Determined

Both the practitioner and the theorist are most interested in whether an intervention or sanction has an effect on criminality. Determining the rate of recidivism is one way to measure this effect.

Recidivism cannot accurately be measured just by using arrest data because not all crime is discovered. It can, however, be measured in different ways, such as:

  • Interviewing persons convicted of a previous crime to determine whether they have committed crimes since entering or exiting a program or sanction.
  • Analyzing officially recorded criminal justice events such as arrests, convictions, supervision violations and commitments to jail or prison.
  • Charting a new offense over an elapsed time frame (e.g., Has the person been arrested since entering community-based drug treatment? Has the person been arrested within three years of his or her release from prison?).
  • Measuring time elapsed until the next crime (e.g., number of days passed until someone was rearrested after his or her release from prison).

The last measure is the most sensitive; however, statistical methods to measure time to an event are more complicated. When an individuals recidivates is key for measurement, as discussed below.

For example, one might compare the difference between the effects of different drug treatments on post-program relapse and criminality. Comparing recidivism rates across programs or jurisdictions, however, can be quite difficult because the programs are likely to have significant differences in measurement definitions, between the types of supervision offered, and among the individuals being studied.

Timing Is Key to Measuring Recidivism

The timing of recidivism is key not only to its measurement but also to understanding the processes underlying the effects of sanctions and interventions with respect to the propensity of the individual to commit crime. Recidivism is delineated by starting and stopping events. The starting event can be the entry into a program or the release from prison. Other criminal justice events such as starting probation or the beginning of parole also qualify as starting events. The stopping event is typically a criminal justice action such as an arrest or revocation of supervision.

Recidivism refers to both the type of stopping event (such as the arrest) and the amount of time between the starting and stopping criminal justice events (such as between entering a program and re-arrest). Sometimes researchers report only statistics on the stopping event, such as the percentage of people arrested. Other times, researchers report the average amount of time from starting to stopping event(s).

How Risk Affects Recidivism Research

The "at-risk environment" must be considered when measuring recidivism. The level of risk for someone released from prison may depend on the level of post-release supervision. For example, it may depend on whether drug testing is conducted. Studies have shown that the higher the at-risk environment, the more likely someone will recidivate.

One of the many difficulties with measuring recidivism is that analysts tend to assume that the risk environment of re-arrest is the same for everyone who is being studied. This factor is important for practitioners and criminologists to be able to study programmatic differences in an intervention. If someone released from one program is put in a "riskier" environment than someone from a different intervention or a control group, any observed differences in re-arrest or recidivism rates may be due to the risk environment rather than the intervention. For example, one can think of a program that releases them to higher levels of supervision than a contrasting program. Observed differences in recidivism may be due to the different levels of supervision rather than the effect of the program.

These types of problems are inherent in the study of most social indicators. Although the problems are formidable, techniques have been developed that allow analysts to make credible comparisons. [2]

Date Published: February 20, 2008