Despite massive increases in state spending on prisons, America’s national recidivism rate is stubbornly high, with more than four in 10 offenders returned to state prison within three years of their release, according to a new report by the Pew Center on the States. In the first ever state-by-state survey of recidivism rates, state corrections data show that nearly 43 percent of prisoners released in 2004, and 45 percent of those released in 1999 were reincarcerated within three years, either for committing a new crime or violating the terms of their supervised release.Let me clarify something for students of 3150 (criminal punishment): the 43% recidivism rate being discussed by Pew is those ending up back in prison; the recidivism rate of repeat criminality itself (defined as rearrest, re-conviction or re-imprisonment three years later) is actually 67.5%. And according to a 2007 BJS report, that's five percentage points higher than it was in the late 1990's.
But the Pew report notes a state by state variance in recidivism, which is compelling.
Of the 33 states that reported data for both 1999 and 2004 releases, recidivism rates fell in 17 states and climbed in 15 states, while one state reported no change.I looked up Georgia in the report, which claims a 35% re-incarceration rate in the late 2000's.
Six states (Alaska, California, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri and Utah) reported that more than half of released offenders returned to state custody within three years in 2004-2007, while five (Oklahoma, Oregon, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming) had recidivism rates under 30 percent.
So there is good news and bad news, but the Pew directors seem far more optimistic about this report than I am.
“There’s been an enormous escalation in prison spending but a barely noticeable impact on the national recidivism rate,” said Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Center on the States. “Policies aimed at reducing recidivism offer perhaps the ripest opportunities for achieving the twin goals of less crime and lower costs,” said Gelb. “State leaders from across the political spectrum are finding they can agree on strategies that do a better job of turning offenders from tax burdens into taxpayers.”Perhaps, but nothing sells soap (or turns out votes) like gettin' tough on crime. If you look at recessionary cutbacks over the past three years, most state corrections cuts were aimed at diversion centers, halfway houses, transition centers and other alternatives to incarceration. Very few prisons have closed, and even fewer inmates (if any) have actually been released because of the recession.
Meaning, crime and punishment are still third rails in politics. I'm doubtful even such a thoughtful document as the Pew report is going to change that.