One of the most frequently cited and dispiriting statistics about the U.S. criminal justice system is that 68 percent of state prisoners end up back behind bars within three years of their release, and about 75 percent come back within five, says Slate. These numbers come from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, where researchers tracked about 400,000 people who were released from state prisons in 2005. The implication is that people who are incarcerated are extremely likely to reoffend once they're free and that most of them spend their lives in and out of correctional facilities.
What if the findings have been fundamentally misunderstood? That's the provocative contention of William Rhodes and others from the firm Abt Associates, writing in the journal Crime & Delinquency. The paper argues that the conventional wisdom about recidivism is flatly wrong. In reality, the authors say, 2 out of 3 people who serve time in prison never come back, and only 11 percent come back multiple times. The reason for the shocking discrepancy between these new findings and those of the BJS, says Rhodes, is that the BJS used a sample population in which repeat offenders were vastly overrepresented. Says Rhodes: “In truth what you have is two groups of offenders: those who repeatedly do crimes and accumulate in prisons because they get recaptured, reconvicted, and resentenced; and those who are much lower risk, and most of them will go to prison once and not come back.”