What is recidivism?

“Recidivism” is a fancy word to describe people who commit another crime after being released from prison. Recidivism is a serious concern in prison policy, since one of the aims of prison is to deter crime. Here’s what we know:

Recidivism is common in the US: The most recent federal data on recidivism, published in April 2014, monitored offenders released from prison in 2005 and tracked their activity for the next five years.

That study found that 76.6 percent of ex-offenders were re-arrested at least once during that period. Additionally, it found that 55.4 percent of ex-offenders were convicted of a new crime within five years.

Here’s a breakdown of recidivism rates for people who got through various stages of the criminal justice system — from being arrested to being convicted to being sent back to prison or jail:


One of the big problems with recidivism data is that not every ex-offender who gets arrested or goes back to prison has committed a new crime. Many, especially in jail and state prisons, get reincarcerated for a technical violation of the terms of their parole (such as leaving the state or failing to check in with their probation officers).

Many ex-offenders are re-arrested for technicalities One-quarter of all prisoners released in 2005 were re-arrested for a technical parole violation at some point during the five years after their release.

While there’s no data on exactly how many people were put back in prison because of a technical violation, the data the federal government compiled shows that 28.2 percent of prisoners released in 2005 ended up getting convicted and sent back to prison, while 55.1 percent of all ex-offenders ended up back in prison on a new sentence or a technical violation. That suggests that as many as a quarter of all ex-offenders end up getting sent back to prison on technicalities.

States are now actively trying to prevent recidivism: Experts agree that the conditions that ex-offenders face when they re-enter their communities, such as high unemployment,often make it easier to return to crime.

In recent years, the question of how to prevent recidivism has led policymakers to change the way probation and parole work — so that instead of just checking up on ex-offenders to see if they’re falling back into criminal behavior, probation and parole officers are actively helping them stay out of it.


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