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Real Recidivism: The Numbers Aren’t Good

Whenever some academician tells the media that this program or that program has “reduced recidivism,” or that “this group of offenders aren’t likely to commit more crimes” there are three questions you should always ask:

  • how long were the offenders tracked after they got out of prison?
  • how were offenders selected for (or excluded from) study?
  • who paid the academician?

I have an especially hard time trusting studies that are designed to test one specific program or sentencing initiative.  Such studies are usually designed by people who have a vested interest in proving the program a success — either the program directors themselves or some professor or consulting firm hired to evaluate their outcomes.

It’s sort of like telling a bunch of ambitious eleventh graders to grade their own performance on the SAT’s . . . based on effort.

Unfortunately, there is no graveyard where skewed studies go to die: they live on in debates about recidivism, sentencing, and crime.  This is how myths like “sex offenders almost never re-offend” seep out into the conventional wisdom.

How do you cook the books on recidivism? You follow tiny pools of offenders.  You pick offenders who have already shown initiative by enrolling in a program or being admitted into one — self-selecting, ideal participants.  You use partial information: convictions instead of arrests; post-plea sentencing instead of pre-pleaded charges.  Mostly, you follow offenders for very short periods of time after they are released, like, down the street to the first stoplight.

When you don’t do these things, this is what the headline looks like:

Recidivism rate worse than statistics indicate, Memphis-area study finds

20 years of research discovers 81 percent of former inmates end up back behind bars

Yikes.

Jeff Smith had been free of drugs for four years. Two of those years were during a stay at the Shelby County Correction Center and two were while working at the Salvation Army after his release from jail.

It was at the Salvation Army that Smith, 54, says he felt “a sense of purpose for the first time in years.” He was doing what he says he loves best — working as a carpenter and furniture refinisher. And he counseled other former inmates to try to keep them from repeating their mistakes.

Smith wishes he had followed his own advice. “I was tempted by the devil, and I failed,” he says. Carpentry, counseling and church services at the Salvation Army weren’t enough to break the “revolving-door” cycle that means, like Smith, up to 94 percent of former inmates will be rearrested and up to 81 percent will wind up behind bars again.

94% re-arrest rate.  This is from a 20-year study that recorded every re-arrest and re-conviction, avoiding the “partial information” scheme.  The study itself was conducted by people who have a program of their own to promote: they claim that their moral reconation therapy (MRT) resulted in a 25% decrease in recidivism:

About 94 percent of inmates receiving only standard counseling had been rearrested and 82 percent of them wound up back behind bars.  Of those receiving MRT therapy, 81 percent had been rearrested and 61 percent again wound up behind bars. It was reduction of about 25 percent from the group that did not receive MRT therapy.

Well, OK.  It’s not that I think that there’s no such thing as rehabilitation.  Consequences and 12-steps and therapy do work.  But I’d need to know a lot more about their selection process to buy the 25% claim.

Besides, when anti-incarceration activists claim that we save X amount of money by not incarcerating someone, that’s just untrue.  Most offenders receive significant social service dollars — housing, medical, food stamps — when they are out of prison as well, not to mention the price of policing them and the costs that arise every time they commit an additional crime, which 94% of them apparently will do.  Offenders who return to abusing substances when they get out of prison are particularly costly as their health deteriorates and their habits drag down the families and neighborhoods around them.  Innocent bystanders and misinformed taxpayers pay the tab either way.

Without acknowledging these costs, statements like this are, frankly, meaningless:

[T]he cost of housing an inmate like Smith is more than $24,000 a year, so cutting total costs by 25 percent would mean a huge savings.

Yet public policy debates rise and fall on questionable claims like these. The media needs to do a much better job of skeptically approaching all research claims.  After all, if there is reliable research showing that everything policymakers have been believing is not only wrong, but staggeringly wrong, the debate needs to be re-calibrated:

Tennessee Department of Correction studies show recidivism rates of about 51 percent over a three-year period, and national studies show recidivism averages of roughly 65 percent over three years. But [Dr. Greg] Little and [Dr. Kenneth] Robinson say the numbers keep going up over time, and the numbers are higher because most studies don’t count re-incarcerations that took place in other states or in courts other than the original case. For instance, an inmate released on state probation or parole is seldom counted as a recidivist if later jailed for a federal crime.

There is a very large difference between 51% recidivism and 94% recidivism.  You don’t need to throw out the rehabilitation baby with the research bathwater just because the research bathwater is hopelessly dirty, but you should wash the baby in clean water.


3 Responses to Real Recidivism: The Numbers Aren’t Good

  1. Overall you present a good summary. But I can answer your questions. The study’s subjects all applied for entry into a drug treatment program (MRT) operated by the Shelby County Correction Center in Memphis, TN from 1986-1991. All were felons serving from 1 to 6 years. The control group was formed from a smaller number of individuals who were randomly excluded because of limited treatment slots. The treated subjects were randomly selected to enter…after all the subjects were placed into a pool of eligibles. There were no differences between the treated and control groups. There have been about a dozen prior published studies in peer-reviewed journals on these groups covering their time periods from 1 to 10 years after release. We were interested in what honestly happens to these people after 20 years of release. The local government, which we are not affiliated with, supplied the data.

    You are correct that the authors (I am the senior author) are engaged in starting programs that reduce recidivism. We all make our living in criminal justice, we are all long-term progfessionals, and I have been in the field since 1975. All rearrests, only with minor traffic charges excluded, were collected as were all reincarcerations. The criminal justice system has always supplied misleading statistics, and that’s something we have battled for decades and have included such ethically-challenged issues in our textbooks and articles. There is a difference between what could be called “accurate” and what is “true” or “honest,” and we wanted to present a true and completely honest picture of what happens after 20 years. The data were, quite frankly, highly disappointing, but also somewhat encouraging. The real point is that there is a proportion of offenders that will return after their release no matter what we do. Right now, reducing those rearrested from 94% to 81% after 20 years is the best anyone has found. Reducing the reincarceration rate (which is rearrest, conviction, plus new sentence) is from 82% to 61%, also the best ever found. It means even using the best treatment known currently, 81% will be rearrested and 61% will still be reincarcerated. Without using that method, 94% are rearrested and 81% are reincarcerated.

    The link to the original full article can be found here:
    http://www.i-newswire.com/what-happens-over-twenty-years/21666

  2. Here is another example of “ethically-challenged” recidivism reports we battle. The actual study, and again I am its senior author, is linked in the release.
    http://www.i-newswire.com/two-year-recidivism-of-first-time/26769

  3. Valerie Parkhurst says:

    Thank you so much for being one of the only other people I know besides myself to KNOW that Recidivsim Studies are directly proportionate to the amount of money the System wants to spend on the issue. Hope you dont mind if I quote you.

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