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How Often Do Inmates Actually Return To Prison? It’s Unclear.

States define recidivism differently, which can result in misleading interpretations of the statistics.

silhouettes of inmates inside Mule Creek State Prison
Inmates inside Mule Creek State Prison on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023, in Ione, California.
(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Several states this year have reported lower rates of recidivism, showing that fewer convicted criminals are being re-arrested after leaving prison.

But those statistics hardly tell the full story.

Recidivism rates across the country can vary greatly because of how they’re defined, how the data is collected and how it’s presented to the public. So it can be difficult to say that, for example, one state is doing better than another in rehabilitating formerly incarcerated residents.

“You have to be very, very careful. You have to compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges,” Charis Kubrin, a criminology, law and society professor at the University of California, Irvine, said in an interview with Stateline. Kubrin also is a member of the Council on Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan research think tank.

The statistics are used to evaluate a corrections system’s performance. They can help assess how effective rehabilitative or reentry programs and post-sentence probation programs are in lowering the number of reoffenders with certain criminal histories, such as substance use.

Recidivism data tracks the number of convicted offenders who engage in new criminal activities after being released from prison or jail within a specific time frame, typically ranging from one to five years.

A reduced recidivism rate may indicate that efforts by prison staff and probation or parole officers to rehabilitate individuals are effective, said Evan Green-Lowe, the director of state engagement at Recidiviz, a tech nonprofit that partners with state criminal justice agencies.

“It is one of the metrics that state correctional leadership and state community supervision leadership pay close attention to,” Green-Lowe wrote in an email to Stateline.

Among the states that reported lower recidivism rates this year, Iowa, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia all have pointed to reentry or other rehabilitative programs as part of the reason.

“These programs make a huge difference,” said Scott Richeson, the Virginia Department of Corrections’ deputy director of programs, education and reentry, in an interview with Stateline. Richeson said the recividism rate for incarcerated people who participate in career and technical education programs is 12 percent.

Some criminologists argue that attributing lower recidivism rates to a specific program fails to consider other influencing factors, such as population shifts and — recently — the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the next couple of years, state-reported recidivism rates likely will continue to decline for individuals who were released in 2019 and 2020, as prisons and jails released more people during the peak years of the pandemic, said Shawn Bushway, an economist and criminologist with the nonprofit and nonpartisan research group RAND Corporation.

Most states measure recidivism by tracking former inmates who were held in state prisons or facilities and return to the state prison system within three years. Experts say the absence of a national standard makes it challenging to compare jurisdictions and programs.

State officials should specify how the rate was calculated, what type of offenses or acts count as recidivism, potential limitations, such as incomplete data, and the frequency of reoffenses, according to Elsa Chen, a professor and the chair of the political science department at Santa Clara University.

Public Understanding of Recidivism

Politicians and officials sometimes use flawed crime data to burnish their crime-fighting bona fides, and they can tout lower recidivism rates as evidence of their success in rehabilitating criminals.

In May, for example, just five months before Kentucky’s gubernatorial election, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear announced at a news conference that the state had achieved its lowest recidivism rate in history at 27.15 percent for individuals held in state custody. Kentucky defines recidivism as a return to state custody within two years of release, either due to committing a new felony or a technical violation of supervision.

“When we get somebody who is leaving prison in a stable position — in a good job, with the services they need, maybe in treatment if they need it — they are less likely to reoffend, which makes our communities safer,” Beshear said during the news conference. “It means fewer crimes are happening.”

The Kentucky Department of Corrections didn’t answer emailed questions and didn’t make anyone available for an interview.

But some experts argue that Beshear’s characterization — implying a connection between recidivism and public safety — is inaccurate because recidivism solely gauges whether an individual reoffends.

“It can have harmful effects on public understanding because the public believes they’re being told something by a responsible person that directly assesses public safety, and [recidivism] does not measure public safety,” Jeffrey Butts, a research professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told Stateline.

Some state officials say recidivism rates show how effective their programming is, while acknowledging the state-by-state differences.

“I don’t think it’s misleading at all because I see all the work and the data that we have available is very reliable,” said Richeson, with the Virginia Department of Corrections. “It’s hard to compare across states because there are differences in every system.”

Virginia measures recidivism by tracking former state inmates who return to the state prison system within three years post-release.

“We feel that’s the best indicator of services that we are providing,” she said.

Richeson said her state’s emphasis on safety within the prisons helps incarcerated residents feel more comfortable being involved in rehabilitation.

“We could not do any of these programs were it not for having safe and secure prisons, so it really is how the whole system works together. It’s not just one program,” she said. “We want to create long-term public safety when people get out.”

What the Data Says

In recidivism studies, the act of reoffending may be defined differently. It can, for example, include violating parole, being arrested, being convicted of a crime or returning to prison. Some studies consider all these outcomes as recidivism, while others count only one or two.

Some states only consider felonies as recidivism, excluding less serious misdemeanors that may result in local jail time rather than a state prison sentence. And states vary in categorizing crimes as felonies or misdemeanors, adding even more complexity.

“Those are policy differences that end up structuring or creating the metric of recidivism,” Butts said. “Unless you investigate all those things and can control for them, you’re still not informing the public in a responsible way.”

States also are inconsistent in the time periods covered by recidivism studies. Most include new offenses within three to five years; others examine a much shorter time frame, such as six months to a year.

Recidivism rates might appear higher in highly policed areas, where residents are more likely to come into contact with police. And in some states, recidivism includes missteps such as missing a meeting with a parole officer, technically not a criminal offense but still counted as one.

“When somebody has recidivated, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve committed any new crimes,” Chen said. “That’s something that is not obvious to most people in the public.”

Official data also can miss counting former prisoners who break the law but go undetected. This is why some criminologists argue that recidivism studies should include self-reports of criminal behavior and differentiate among various types of recidivism, such as violent crimes, property crimes and technical violations.

“In an ideal system, you would have measures of recidivism that span all of these different things,” Kubrin, the law and society professor, said.

State Recidivism Rates

States this year have pointed to rehabilitation and reentry programs as major contributors to their drops in recidivism.

In Iowa, the recidivism rate for fiscal year 2023 stands at 34.3 percent, down 2.7 percentage points from last year. The state defines recidivism as an individual being released from an Iowa prison and being re-incarcerated within three years for any reason.

A news release announcing Iowa’s third consecutive drop in recidivism attributed the decrease to various programs, improved reentry practices and increased access to educational and job skills training.

The Iowa Department of Corrections also examines outcomes such as employment and wages, housing stability, program completion and probation, parole and work-release revocations, according to Sarah Fineran, the agency’s research director.

Tennessee saw its recidivism rate drop to 29.6 percent this year for people released in 2019, the lowest rate in more than a decade. The Tennessee Department of Correction defines recidivism as re-arrest, re-conviction or return to prison within three years after release.

The Virginia Department of Corrections in January announced its recidivism rate dropped to 20.6 percent, which includes people released from the state prison system in 2018 who were re-incarcerated within three years.

This is the seventh consecutive year that Virginia has had the second-lowest or the lowest rate of recidivism in the nation, according to the department’s news release and analysis.

South Carolina, too, boasts one of the lowest recidivism rates in the country at 17 percent. The South Carolina Department of Corrections defines recidivism as someone who is re-incarcerated within three years of release.

“It’s never just one thing, but a combination of interventions. [The South Carolina Department of Corrections] takes a holistic approach based on the needs of the individual offender,” Chrysti Shain, the department’s director of communications, wrote in an email to Stateline. “We want to release inmates who have a real second chance.”

Measuring Success

Some advocates say that using alternative factors such as employment or housing provides much better indicators of success after being released from prison.

“Recidivism by itself is not a true measure of the success of reentry programming or of incarceration rates,” said Ann Fisher, the executive director of Virginia CARES, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting formerly incarcerated people in Virginia. “It’s just not a true picture.”

A 2022 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine suggests pairing recidivism rates with indicators that capture progress away from crime, such as reductions in the seriousness of criminal activity or an increased duration between release and a criminal act, known as “desistance.”

The report also recommends developing new measures of post-release success that consider factors such as personal well-being, education, employment, housing, family and social supports, health, civic and community engagement and legal involvement.

“Measures of desistance from crime are much more accurate and realistic in looking at changes in criminal activity after release from prison,” said Chen, of Santa Clara University, who is one of the report’s authors. “Those are much more nuanced than just whether or not they’ve had another interaction with the criminal legal system.”

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