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Are Fewer Returns to Prison in Society’s Best Interest?
By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Published: 08/13/2018



Pew analyzed US Department of Justice data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics to conclude that fewer people are being revoked (returned) to prison based on technical violations (i.e, drug positives, failing to pay restitution, etc.) or for new crimes.

We introduce some additional data and insight to put the issue into perspective.

The bottom line question, are fewer returns to prison in society’s best interest?

Some Issues

The original USDOJ data reanalyzed by Pew states that the overwhelming majority of people released from prison are rearrested or returned to prison.

There are differences as to the definition of recidivism. Pew uses reincarcerations where the US Sentencing Commission insists that arrests should be included if recidivism is to be fairly measured.

Pew claims reductions in returns to prison are based on treatment programs. The best data from the US Department of Justice suggests that programs have either no effect or minimal results.

Per findings from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, “99% of prisoners who were arrested during the 9-year follow-up period were arrested for an offense other than a probation or parole violation.” Thus, people may be revoked for a technical violation (i.e., multiple drug positives) but virtually all released from prison are rearrested for new crimes.

If 5 out of 6 released prisoners are arrested again, why are fewer people going back to prison?

Considering the fact that governors want to reduce their correctional budgets (the heart and soul of prison reform), it’s probable that states have discouraged revocations (per the input of hundreds of parole and probation agents on social media).

Clarifications and Additional Points To Consider

Synopsis of the Original BJS Study

Five out of six state prisoners were arrested at least once during the nine years after their release.

The 401,288 state prisoners released in 2005 had an estimated 1,994,000 arrests within 9 years, an average of 5 arrests per released prisoner.

An estimated 23% of released prisoners were responsible for half of the nearly 1,994,000 arrests.

99% of prisoners who were arrested during the 9-year follow-up period were arrested for an offense other than a probation or parole violation.

Before this report, the most common understanding of recidivism states that two-thirds (68 percent) of prisoners released were arrested for a new crime within three years of release from prison, and three-quarters (77 percent) were arrested within five years.

Within 3 years of release, 49.7% of inmates either had an arrest that resulted in a conviction with a disposition of a prison sentence or were returned to prison without a new conviction because they violated a technical condition of their release, as did 55.1% of inmates within 5 years of release, Crime in America.

Definition Of Recidivism

Pew states that people who return to state prison three years after being released is the common measure of recidivism. This is incorrect. Most states and program evaluations offer data on arrests, convictions, and reincarcerations.

In addition, the US Sentencing Commission states that, “To the extent that the rearrest event is an accurate indicator of relapse into criminal behavior, excluding events due to non-conviction or non-incarceration will result in underestimation of recidivism,” Crime in America

The Effectiveness of Example State Programs

Pew offers data from states touting the effectiveness of programs for former prisoners. But the flagship programs funded by the US Department of Justice show no reduction in recidivism regardless of the measurements involved. Beyond the USDOJ data, virtually all program evaluations show either no or minimal reductions, Crime in America.

There are massive methodological problems for many of the example states Pew offers as success stories for reducing recidivism, Crime in America.

Crime and Arrests Are Declining-Less Pressure to Revoke?

There are record lows for crime over the course of the last two decades except for the rise in violent crime for 2015 and 2016 per the FBI, US Crime.

There are significant reductions in arrests for most categories, see FBI-Arrests.

Incarceration is Declining

In 2016, the rate at which people were sentenced to more than one year in state or federal prison (imprisonment rate) was the lowest since 1997.

During the decade between 2006 and 2016, the rate of imprisonment decreased 29 percent for black adults, 15 percent for white adults and 20 percent for Hispanic adults, Crime in America.


There are demands on the part of governors to reduce prison costs, considered by many to be the driving force of correctional and sentencing reform.

There have been significant policy changes at the state level. Since that 2008 peak, 36 states reduced their imprisonment rates, including declines of 15 percent or more in 20 states from diverse regions of the country, such as Alaska, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Connecticut, Pew.

Most of the states involved in sentencing reform have reduced sentences or raised the bar as to what constitutes a felony or have legalized activities such as possession of marijuana, thus its fair to suggest that sentences to prison are not only fewer but shorter.


There are a variety of reasons as to why returns to prison and the overall prison populations have declined:

There may be less public pressure on the system to revoke offenders back to prison due to substantially less crime over the course of the last twenty years.

Governors want reductions in correctional budgets, achieved through sentencing reform and fewer revocations.

There are endless comments on social media by parole and probation agents that they are revoking fewer offenders after prison because the bar for revocation has been raised. Note that the majority of offenders after prison have multiple technical violations for drug positives or not making restitution or paying court fines. There are thousands of offenders deemed “successful” who would have been revoked in the past.

This may not be a bad thing. When I was the Director of Public Information for the Maryland Department of Public Safety, I was told that 70 percent (and more) of our prison intakes were violations of parole and probation. When I asked why so many, I was told that agents were “dumping” their troublesome offenders; they got rid of them as fast as possible by revoking them.

When you violate this many people, it greatly limits the number of new offenders you can incarcerate; there is a point where you simply run out of capacity. Considering that 54 percent of state prison populations have a current conviction for a violent crime, and many more have a history of violence, you want to have prison beds available for those who are truly dangerous.

Endless revocations (especially for lower level offenders) creates questions of priorities, which is why many governors want fewer revocations.

The principle question is the impact on public safety. Can we balance the increasing violence of the last several years with fewer people being revoked to prison?

The #metoo movement decries the multiple examples of sex offenders getting light sentences or a lack of supervision upon release. Many feel the same way about other types of offenders.

Concern about crime is growing, Crime in America. As I write this, reports are coming in that over 70 people were shot during one weekend in Chicago with over 10 dead (media is reporting a variety of numbers). Similar incidents are reported in other cities.

We are in a state of flux as to whether the considerable increases in violent crimes during 2015 and 2016 will continue, Crime in America, and only time will tell if fewer revocations to prison are in our collective best interest.


The share of people who return to state prison three years after being released—the most common measure of recidivism—dropped by nearly a quarter over a recent seven-year period, according to an analysis by The Pew Charitable Trusts of federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) data on prisoners released in 2005 and 2012.

Pew analyzed publicly accessible data from the 23 states that reported reliable prison admissions and release data to BJS from 2005 through 2015. Among prisoners released in 2005, 48 percent returned to prison by the end of 2008. By comparison, among those released in those states in 2012, 37 percent had at least one new prison admission by the end of 2015. That translates into a drop of 23 percent. The states included in the analysis accounted for about two-thirds of those released from state prisons nationwide each year.

Longer-term recidivism also fell. Prisoners released in these states in 2010 were 13 percent less likely than the 2005 cohort to return to prison at least once by the end of the fifth year after release. Included in these numbers are people sent back to prison for a new crime or for violating the terms of their post-prison supervision.

The decrease in recidivism occurred alongside long-term reductions in crime. Pew’s analysis of FBI crime statistics shows that the combined national violent and property crime rate dropped 26 percent from 2005 to 2015.

Pew undertook this research to compile and make public the most current multistate data on recidivism trends. The BJS national report on state prison recidivism released in May 2018 presents nine years of data on people released from 30 states in 2005, but it includes no information on prisoners released since then.

To obtain more recent data, Pew researchers used publicly available administrative numbers that BJS collected from states for the National Corrections Reporting Program. State prisoners are assigned unique identifiers, enabling researchers to track when they are released and whether they return to prison—except in cases in which a prisoner is released in one state and readmitted to prison in another. Pew analyzed data from the 23 states that consistently reported prison admissions and releases every year from 2005 to 2015. The cohorts ranged from 392,000 to 458,000 released prisoners.

Evidence-based re-entry policies and programs that have been enacted in recent years have been shown to improve outcomes for people released from prison. Studies in individual states over the past decade have shown significant reductions in returns to prison from parole, including decreases of 35 percent in Georgia from 2007 to 2016 and 43 percent in Michigan from 2006 to 2015. A 2014 report by the National Reentry Resource Center highlighted eight states that had experienced reductions in recidivism, providing examples of the strategies and programs undertaken to achieve these results. And in Virginia, the Department of Corrections released an analysis in 2017 that attributed the state’s low recidivism rate to policymakers’ focus on re-entry programming and treatment.

Reducing recidivism improves public safety, reduces taxpayer spending on prisons, and helps formerly incarcerated people successfully resume family and community responsibilities. But a lack of data has complicated efforts to understand the aggregate effects of myriad federal, state, and local efforts to reduce reoffending. This analysis shows that meaningful improvements in recidivism are occurring.


Reprinted with permission from http://www.crimeinamerica.net.

Contact us at crimeinamerica@gmail.com or for media on deadline, use leonardsipes@gmail.com.

Leonard A. Sipes, Jr has thirty-five years of experience supervising public affairs for national and state criminal justice agencies. He is the Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse and the Former Director of Information Management for the National Crime Prevention Council. He has a Post Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and is the author of the book "Success With the Media". He can be reached via email at leonardsipes@gmail.com.


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