Federal Prisoner Recidivism Report Indicates High Return Rate

Commentary

Federal Prisoner Recidivism Report Indicates High Return Rate

This week, the United States Sentencing Commission released its newest report with the results of an eight-year study on recidivism. Chief Judge Patti B. Saris, Chair of the Commission, commented, “The study is groundbreaking in both its breadth-studying all 25,431 U.S. citizen federal offenders released in 2005, and in its duration-following the releasees over an eight-year period.”

The study shows that over this eight-year follow-up period:

  • Nearly half (49.3%) of all inmates released in 2005 were rearrested for a new crime or violation of parole;
  • Almost one-third (31.7%) were reconvicted of a crime; and,
  • Roughly one-quarter (24.6%) were reincarcerated.

Of those rearrested:

  • Most were rearrested within the first two years after release, and that number declined with each year out of prison.
  • The majority of rearrests were nonviolent; however,
  • The most prevalent serious crime was assault (23.3%), followed by public order (15.5%), and drug trafficking (11.5%).

The recidivism rates outlined in the report raise questions about how effective the federal prison system is when it comes to rehabilitating offenders and deterring crime. Finding work and housing are often substantially more difficult for newly released prisoners for a host of reasons-lack of training, the stigma of a felony record, difficulty finding employment, housing regulations, etc. Without the proper tools to begin life outside of prison again, it’s no wonder many inmates quickly find themselves back behind bars.

In order to better combat recidivism, attention should shift to rehabilitative programs and their accessibility to inmates. Research has indicated that the risk of recidivism drops 13% for inmates who participate in any type of educational program while in prison, from GED to vocational training. Those findings were echoed in the report; of those reincarcerated, 45% had less than a high school degree. In addition to education, inmates would greatly benefit from the expansion of other rehabilitative and job-training programs that could help rehabilitate inmates and give them the skills they need to lead a meaningful life post release. As things stand, there aren’t enough programs to accommodate the current inmate population. For example, in 2011 there were 51,000 inmates on the waiting list for drug rehabilitation or education classes. If these programs are coupled with good time incentives, more prisoners will be motivated to complete them, thus widening the pool of those less likely to recidivate.

Secondly, addressing the length of time served for elderly inmates would yield to significant cost savings without risking public safety. Research has consistently found age to be major factor in the likelihood of recidivism and the current study is no different. In this study, USSC found that 67.6% of offenders younger than 21 at release recidivated, compared to 16% of offenders older than 60. Further, incarcerating elderly inmates comes with an exorbitant cost. The Office of Inspector General estimates that the Bureau of Prisons spent $881 million dollars to incarcerate aging inmates-19% of its total budget.

States have already taken action to combat record-high incarceration and recidivism rates. According to the Sentencing Project, 30 states passed laws aimed at decreasing their prison population in 2015. Examples of these reforms include: reclassifying felony drug charges, increasing felony theft thresholds, reducing mandatory minimums, expanding judicial discretion, and bringing back parole or good-time incentives. Over the years, evidence has shown that states that have reduced their prison populations have not seen increases in violent crime. In fact, from 1994 to 2012 the top five states with the largest decreases in imprisonment had an average crime reduction of 45%. It is time for the federal government to follow the state’s lead on incarceration issues, and this recidivism report only adds fuel to the fire.

Erinn Broadus is the Spring 2016 Criminal Justice Reform Policy Intern.