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Recidivism Is Inadequate Measure Of Post-Prison Success, Experts Say

Recidivism is an inadequate measurement of success after release from prison, concludes a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

It calls on researchers to develop supplementary measures that evaluate success across multiple areas of a person’s life after prison — including employment, housing, health, social support, and personal well-being — and that measure interactions with the criminal justice system with more nuance.

Federal officials should develop national standards for recidivism data and new measurements, the authors say.

State and federal prisons release nearly 600,000 people annually. Recidivism — a return to criminal behavior — is a common measure of success after release from prison, but it falls short of describing other, positive elements of reentry into society.

The report says given the rehabilitative aims of prisons and reentry supervision, expanded measures of post-release success would enable these systems to better understand their impact and best practices.

“Our report draws on the expertise of individuals who have experienced reentry, those who work in corrections and reentry services, as well as victims’ advocates and many other communities — and it’s clear that it’s time we recognize the numerous shortcomings of relying exclusively on recidivism data,” said criminologist Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri St. Louis, chair of the committee that wrote the report. “Better measures could open many doors for better decision-making and policy.”

The report, The Limits of Recidivism: Measuring Success After Prison, says the data used to calculate recidivism rates are often limited. These data describe specific legal system actions — such as arrests, convictions, or incarceration — but do not describe crimes that went undetected.

These rates may also include non-criminal parole violations, and can reflect biases of the criminal justice system, such as where to police or who to arrest.

The report says that researchers, policymakers, and practitioners should specify exactly which legal actions are included in administrative recidivism data. The report recommends the development of new measures of post-release success that take into account a number of factors in people’s lives after incarceration, including personal well-being, education, employment, housing, family and social supports, health, civic and community engagement, and legal involvement. The study by the Committee on Evaluating Success Among People Released from Prison — was sponsored by Arnold Ventures.


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