Of all the mind-numbing statistics thrown about in the criminal justice system, perhaps none is more important than the recidivism rate – the likelihood that someone who broke the law once will do it again after being set free. This is the number that tells us who we would be wise to keep locked up, and who is (statistically) safe to send home. This is the number that tells us whether prisons are doing their job, making us safer.
Wednesday the U.S. Sentencing Commission released the results of a major study of all 25,431 federal offenders released in 2005. For the most part it reaffirms the conventional wisdom of criminologists: older offenders and those with more education are less likely to return to a life of crime. The single best indicator of whether an ex-offender will become a re-offender is the length and seriousness of his rap sheet. But these conclusions bear repeating, since they offer some guidance to policy-makers, who are mostly not criminologists.
Here are a few highlights:
The most striking number is this: About 45 percent of federal inmates are rearrested within five years of release. This is considerably lower than the more alarming calculation of the Bureau of Justice Statistics: 77 percent rearrested within five years. But the BJS number includes both federal prisoners and the far more numerous veterans of state prisons. The populations are different. Most murders, rapes, assaults and robberies are handled in state courts. The largest category of federal inmates consists of drug traffickers. A failure rate of 45 percent is still not something most institutions would celebrate. But it’s worth keeping in mind that when members of Congress talk about federal sentencing reform, they are talking about a significantly less menacing population than the legion of monsters sometimes conjured by hard-liners. Most of their new crimes are nonviolent.
And many of those rearrested are not convicted or sent back to prison. The rearrest rate (for the first eight years after release) is about 49 percent. The re-conviction rate is 32 percent. The re-incarceration rate is 25 percent. (Next time you find yourself in a room full of criminologists, ask them to define “recidivism,” and stand back.)
Inmates who didn’t finish high school are 10 points more likely to be arrested again than those who got a high school diploma – and 40 points more likely than those who finished college. This is a useful number for those who advocate Pell grants and other education programs behind bars.
Prisoners released before turning 21 had a rearrest rate of about 68 percent; those released at age 60 or older had a rate of 16 percent. This is useful data for advocates of “compassionate release” of elderly inmates, who also tend to be the most expensive to house and tend to.
Recidivists are most likely to commit their new offense within two years of release. This suggests that society should spend heavily on supervision and reentry programs for the newly released, and not so much after four or five years.
Blacks are about 17 points more likely to be arrested after release than whites, but blacks are more likely to be arrested in the first place. The report does not address the mix of reasons for this — poverty, broken families, racism and lack of opportunity — which may have little or nothing to do with a criminal disposition.
Offenders convicted of crimes involving guns are far more likely (68 percent) to end up being arrested again.
The Sentencing Commission promises to roll out a series of reports diving deeper into their new data.