The justice system traditionally uses a simple metric to determine whether an individual continues to be a threat to public safety after leaving prison: has the person been arrested for another crime?
Recidivism rates are also used as criteria for judging the success of intervention programs and policy reforms.
But a University of Wisconsin Law School professor argues that in both cases, the system too often gets it wrong.
In a recent essay for the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Cecilia M. Klingele suggested that recidivism rates produce a “one-dimensional” picture that not only skews the decisions of judges and parole boards, but prevents the development of effective policies that can reduce mass incarceration.
Acknowledging that she is contradicting practices favored by both reformers and justice authorities, Klingele called on policymakers and private donors to stop using recidivism as their sole criteria for judging successful outcomes, and instead apply the more nuanced standard of “desistance” from crime used by criminologists to measure an individual’s changes in behavior over time.
“By over-relying on recidivism rates to gauge success, policymakers and system actors alike risk under-appreciating change by individual defendants and undervaluing the criminal justice interventions that move people forward,” Klingele wrote.
“Moreover, by looking only at whether past offenders have recidivated, rather than at how often and in what ways they recidivate, system actors risk missing clues about escalating dangers or underestimating the harm inflicted by ill-conceived interventions.”
The “binary” approach that measures the risk of future criminal behavior on whether or not an individual has been re-arrested is used in every corner of the justice system, from parole boards to the burgeoning field of risk assessment tools, Klingele pointed out.
Recidivism rates have also been used to gauge the success or failure of federal policies such as the Second Chance Act which required recipients of federal funding to demonstrate a 50 percent reduction in re-offending over a five-year period, and have been established as the criteria for program funding by many private charitable foundations.
But re-arrest data usually fails to provide a real picture of an individual’s success in abandoning the behavior that put him or her in contact with the justice system in the first place, Klingele argued.
“If change is a process rather than an event, using a binary metric like recidivism is too one-dimensional,” she wrote.
“While recidivism data tell us whether those exposed to various interventions re-offended during the follow-up window, they tell us nothing about the nature of the re-offense or whether the trajectory of a person’s subsequent contacts with the law suggest a move toward desistance or away from it.”
As one example, she observed that “the addict who stops selling drugs (but shoplifts a few canned goods) and the batterer who again assaults his wife are both ‘recidivists,’ but there is a clear distinction between them.”
Recidivism Data Can Be Misleading
Recidivism statistics can also be incomplete or misleading, since records of re-arrests “turn as much on luck and policing patterns as they do on deviant behavior,” Klingele added.
She argued that players in the justice system could learn a lesson from the U.S. education system, which has largely abandoned blunt data like test scores as the sole criteria for measuring student success or failure.
“Without rejecting the role that data can play in assessing the success of the educational enterprise, teachers and school administrators have required that data be used to trace the learning process itself, looking for multiple forms of evidence of growth over time rather than simple snapshots of isolated performance,” she wrote.
Similarly, criminologists believe an individual’s gradual reduction in criminal involvement over time is not only a more useful way of guiding sentencing decisions by courts—but is more likely to shape programs aimed at fostering socially acceptable behavior.
Drug courts, for instance, are hampered when they penalize individuals for relapses in substance abuse, Klingele wrote.
“Overreliance on recidivism rates as a success metric encourages drug court programs to reject the very people who are most likely to benefit from the extra resources the drug court offers,” she argued.
“The irony is acute, because substance abuse treatment providers have long embraced the mantra that ‘relapse is a part of recovery’ and that the road to sobriety almost always includes set-backs—many of which would qualify as “recidivism” if detected and punished.”
Klingele admitted that taking an individual’s “desistance”–or gradual reduction in criminality—into account in day-to-day justice system decisions requires taking a deeper and more labor-intensive look at an individual’s history. But she points out that some intervention programs are already oriented towards a more “holistic approach.”
Some correctional programs used cognitive-based therapy (CBT) to work with offenders by helping them develop better behaviors, employing a tool used by educators that show “the mastery of skills occurs over time and comes only with repeated practice,” she wrote.
But she observed that real change can only come when policymakers move away from the punitive strategies that characterize the U.S. justice system.
“The emphasis that has been placed on recidivism rates and their reduction psychologically reinforces the idea that the job of the criminal justice system is to prevent crime at all costs, even if that means confining behind bars people whose conduct does not pose a serious risk of harm to others and those who have demonstrated that they are engaged in the process of behavioral change,” wrote Klingele.
Read the full version of Klingele’s essay here.