Who Returns to Prison—and Why?

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Almost half of federal offenders tracked by a U.S. Sentencing Commission study were back in trouble with the law within eight years of their release—most of them for nonviolent offenses—but their rates of recidivism and reconviction were significantly lower than for state offenders.

The eight-year study, released yesterday, tracked 25,431 offenders released from federal prison or placed on probation in 2005. It found that nearly half (49.3 percent) were re-arrested within eight years for either a new crime or for a technical violation of their release/probation conditions. Nearly one-third of those surveyed were actually reconvicted of a new crime (and most of those new offenses occurred within two years of their release).

The commission said that the length of study and the large cohort allowed “more precise estimates of recidivism rates across different subgroups.” White offenders (43.7 percent) were the largest group in the study sample, followed by African-Americans (33.9 percent) and Hispanics (17.8 percent). The median age at the time of release was 36 years; 1,048 were older than 60.

Most of the re-arrests were for non-violent offenses, with a quarter returning to prison for assault (the most common serious re-arrest offense).

A similar group of state prisoners released in 2005, tracked by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, showed significantly higher recidivism and re-arrest rates, the study said. According to the BJS, 76.6 per cent of state offenders were rearrested within five years. The comparable figure for federal offenders was 44.9 percent, after adjusting for a five-year follow-up period and limiting the sample to those released from prison (excluding probationers). Similarly, state offenders’ reconviction rates (55.4 percent) were higher than the adjusted rate of federal offenders in the commission study (20.7 percent)

“When recidivism is measured by re-incarceration, BJS found a 28.2 recidivism rate for state offenders within five years that led to an incarceration, compared to 20.7 percent of the federal offenders,” the commission reported.

It added that the principal factors associated with higher re-arrest and reconviction rates of the offenders in its study were age and criminal history.

“Younger offenders recidivated at significantly higher rates than older offenders, and offenders with more extensive criminal histories recidivated at significantly higher rates than offenders with lesser criminal histories.”

The full report is available HERE.

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