Several states this year have reported lower rates of recidivism, meaning that fewer convicted criminals are being re-arrested after leaving prison.
The statistics do not tell the full story.
Recidivism rates can vary greatly because of how they’re defined, how data are collected and how they are presented to the public It can be difficult to say that one state is doing better than another in rehabilitating formerly incarcerated residents, reports Stateline.
“You have to be very, very careful. You have to compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges,” said criminologist Charis Kubrin of the University of California, Irvine.
The statistics are used to evaluate a corrections system’s performance. They can help assess how effective rehabilitative or reentry programs and post-sentence probation programs are in lowering the number of reoffenders with criminal histories, such as substance use.
Recidivism data tracks the number of convicted offenders who engage in new criminal activities after being released from prison or jail within a specific time frame, typically ranging from one to five years.
A reduced recidivism rate may indicate that efforts by prison staff and probation or parole officers to rehabilitate individuals are effective, said Evan Green-Lowe of Recidiviz, a tech nonprofit that partners with state criminal justice agencies. “It is one of the metrics that state correctional leadership and state community supervision leadership pay close attention to.”
Among the states that reported lower recidivism rates this year, Iowa, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia all have pointed to reentry or other rehabilitative programs as part of the reason.
“These programs make a huge difference,” said Scott Richeson, the Virginia Department of Corrections’ deputy director of programs, education and reentry. He said the recividism rate for incarcerated people who participate in career and technical education programs is 12%.
Some criminologists argue that attributing lower recidivism rates to a specific program fails to consider other influencing factors, such as population shifts and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over the next couple of years, state-reported recidivism rates likely will continue to decline for individuals who were released in 2019 and 2020, as prisons and jails released more people during the peak years of the pandemic, said Shawn Bushway, an economist and criminologist with the RAND Corporation.