• The Risk that they Pose to Their Communities?

    The myth: People in prison for violent or sexual crimes are too dangerous to be released

    Of course, many people convicted of violent offenses have caused serious harm to others. But how does the criminal legal system determine the risk that they pose to their communities? Again, the answer is too often “we judge them by their offense type,” rather than “we evaluate their individual circumstances.” This reflects the particularly harmful myth that people who commit violent or sexual crimes are incapable of rehabilitation and thus warrant many decades or even a lifetime of punishment.

    As lawmakers and the public increasingly agree that past policies have led to unnecessary incarceration, it’s time to consider policy changes that go beyond the low-hanging fruit of “non-non-nons” — people convicted of non-violent, non-serious, non-sexual offenses. Again, if we are serious about ending mass incarceration, we will have to change our responses to more serious and violent crime.

    Recidivism: A slippery statistic

    How well do different measures of recidivism reflect actual failure or success upon reentry?

    As long as we are considering recidivism rates as a measure of public safety risk, we should also consider how recidivism is defined and measured. While this may sound esoteric, this is an issue that affects an important policy question: at what point — and with what measure — do we consider someone’s reentry a success or failure?

    The term “recidivism” suggests a relapse in behavior, a return to criminal offending. But what is a valid sign of criminal offending: self-reported behavior, arrest, conviction, or incarceration? Defining recidivism as rearrest casts the widest net and results in the highest rates, but arrest does not suggest conviction, nor actual guilt. More useful measures than rearrest include conviction for a new crime, re-incarceration, or a new sentence of imprisonment; the latter may be most relevant, since it measures offenses serious enough to warrant a prison sentence. Importantly, people convicted of violent offenses have the lowest recidivism rates by each of these measures. However, the recidivism rate for violent offenses is a whopping 48 percentage points higher when rearrest, rather than imprisonment, is used to define recidivism.

    The cutoff point at which recidivism is measured also matters: If someone is arrested for the first time 5, 10, or 20 years after they leave prison, that’s very different from someone arrested within months of release. The most recent government study of recidivism reported that 82% of people incarcerated in state prison were arrested at some point in the 10 years following their release. However, the vast majority of people in this group were arrested within the first three years, and more than half within the first year. The longer the time period, the higher the reported recidivism rate — but the lower the actual threat to public safety.

    A related question is whether the particular post-release offense matters. For example, 69% of people imprisoned for a violent offense are rearrested within five years of release, but only 44% are rearrested for another violent offense; they are much more likely to be rearrested for a public order offense. If someone convicted of robbery is arrested years later for a liquor law violation, it makes no sense to view this very different, much less serious, offense the same way we would another arrest for robbery. Moreover, public order offenses often include “technical” violations, so in many states, recidivism statistics are inflated by these non-criminal infractions.

    A final note about recidivism: While policymakers frequently cite reducing recidivism as a priority, few states collect the data that would allow them to monitor and improve their own performance in real time. For example, the Council of State Governments asked correctional systems what kind of recidivism data they collect and publish for people leaving prison and people starting probation. What they found is that states typically track just one measure of post-release recidivism, and few states track recidivism while on probation at all:

    Chart showing which states track and publish rearrest, reconviction, and/or reincarceration for people released from prison. Almost every state tracks reincarceration, few track either of the other measures. Chart showing which states track and publish rearrest, reconviction, or incarceration for people starting probation. Only a handful of states track any probation recidivism data at all.

    If state-level advocates and political leaders want to know if their state is even trying to reduce recidivism, we suggest one easy litmus test: Do they collect and publish basic data about the number and causes of people’s interactions with the justice system while on probation, or after release from prison?

    Recidivism data do not support the belief that people who commit violent crimes ought to be locked away for decades for the sake of public safety. People convicted of violent and sexual offenses are actually among the least likely to be rearrested, and those convicted of rape or sexual assault have rearrest rates 20% lower than all other offense categories combined. One reason for the lower rates of recidivism among people convicted of violent offenses: age is one of the main predictors of violence. The risk for violence peaks in adolescence or early adulthood and then declines with age, yet we incarcerate people long after their risk has declined.

    from: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2024.html

    Categories: Legislating Morality, Resources, Statistics and Research

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