The Pew Center on the States has released a major new empirical study on recidivism rates among released prisoners. Bottom line: about 40 percent are returned to prison within three years of release. About half are returned for violations of parole conditions, and half for new convictions. Return-to-prison rates vary widely among the states, from 22.8 percent in Oregon to 61.2 percent in Minnesota. Wisconsin’s 46-percent rate is a little above the national average.
The most recent comparable study was released by the United States Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics almost a decade ago. The BJS study tracked three-year recidivism rates of prisoners released in 1994. The Pew Study followed cohorts in 1999 and 2004. (The numbers presented above come from the 2004 cohort.) Although the Pew methodology varied from BJS’s in several respects, both found return-to-prison rates of about 40 percent, suggesting a remarkable consistency in recidivism rates over time.
Although the national rate has remained steady, individual states have seen substantial changes. Here again Oregon stands out, with a drop from 33.4 percent for the 1999 cohort to 22.8 percent for those released in 2004. Here’s how Pew accounts for Oregon’s success:
In prison, Oregon inmates receive risk and needs assessments at intake, and targeted case management during incarceration, along with detailed transition planning that begins six months before release. In the community, probation officers use a sanctioning grid to impose swift, certain consequences for violations, creating consistency across offenders and from county to county. In both settings, offender programs are anchored in research and continually monitored and updated to optimize their effectiveness.
The change in the handling of offenders who violate terms of their supervision was striking. In the past, parole and probation violators filled more than a quarter of Oregon’s prison beds. Today violators are rarely reincarcerated. Instead, they face an array of graduated sanctions in the community, including a short jail stay as needed to hold violators accountable. (20)
But Pew also observes that it is unwise to assume that a state’s relative recidivism rate reflects strong or weak performance by the state’s department of corrections. There are a lot of variables at play. Take Oklahoma, for instance, which has one of the nation’s lowest recidivism rates. Rather than reflecting a highly effective corrections or reentry program, Oklahoma’s “success” may have more to do with its unusually harsh sentencing practices, which result in the imprisonment of many low-risk offenders who would receive probation elsewhere. Low-risk going in means better recidivism numbers coming out — but this is hardly a model to emulate.