Reentry Programs, Reforms Helped Lower Recidivism Rates by Nearly Half: Report

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Car Caravan from the Pennsylvania Prisons #FreeOurPeople Protest in late March, Photo by Joe Piette via Flickr.

An overall decline in recidivism rates may have been driven by federal and state reentry programs and changes in policing strategy, according to an analysis of 2005-2012 data by the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ).

The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ (BJS) recently released recidivism report, found that recidivism rates dropped by nearly a half in that period from 30.4 percent in 2005 to 19.9 percent in 2012.

But the cumulative five-year rearrest rate of people exiting prison in 2012 was virtually unchanged for violent offenses. At the same time, rearrests for property offenses declined by three percentage points between 2005 and 2012, and rearrests for drug violations declined by six percentage points.

“Recidivism studies like the recent BJS report are crucial in tracking the impact of criminal justice reforms and reentry programs,” write Nancy La Vigne, Executive Director of the Council on Criminal Justice Task Force on Policing, and Ernesto Lopez, Research Specialist at the Council on Criminal Justice.

CCJ notes that the factors driving the reduction in return-to-prison rates are unclear. Changes in the behavior of people being released — like a pattern of committing fewer new crimes or violations of supervision — or changes in the behavior of the criminal justice system, from reform to police arrest practices or probation and parole, could be driving the decline.

But according to CCJ, federal and state investment programs have been substantial in recent years, and some private sector initiatives have prioritized the hiring of people with criminal records — efforts that may have reduced reoffending rates.

Changes in policing strategy and other justice reforms may also have been a factor in the decline.

In fact, as recidivism rates have declined, so have arrest rates for minor offenses, dropping from 12 million in 2005 to 9 million in 2018.

From the BJS report, CCJ determined that most people are rearrested for public order offenses, which account for 58 percent of 2005 releases who were rearrested and 54 percent of 2012 releases. Public order offenses encompass driving under the influence, disorderly conduct and weapons violations.

Rearrest rates, though, differ across age groups.

Older people return to prison at lower rates, a phenomenon criminologists call “aging out” of crime. People released at age 24 or younger were 64 percent more likely to be reincarcerated at year five (around 57 percent) than those released at age 40 or older (around 36 percent).

Regardless of age, the severity of a person’s original conviction doesn’t indicate their likelihood of rearrest. In fact, people released in 2012 who were convicted of homicide were the least likely to be rearrested, with 41.3 percent rearrested at least once over five years. People convicted of property crimes were most likely to be rearrested, at 78.3 percent over five years.

To further explore this phenomenon, as well as to understand the causes of declining recidivism, the authors recommend further research.

“Such studies, which track recidivism of release cohorts, should be complemented by those that track recidivism outcomes of individuals,” La Vigne and Lopez write. “Studies focused on individuals paint a more accurate picture of post-release reoffending.”

The full report is available here.

 This summary was prepared by TCR Justice Reporting intern Eva Herscowitz.

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