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Are States Truthful About Offender Recidivism?
By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Published: 12/24/2018

Inmate jail During my thirty-five-year media relations career for national and local criminal justice agencies, discussions as to statistics were common. Most of us understood that misrepresentation of data was public relations suicide.

For some jurisdictions, has that changed? States now claim reduced recidivism. Most (not all) jurisdictions base their findings on new arrests, convictions, and reincarcerations. Recidivism could mean a return to prison or continued community supervision with enhanced standards.

Are offenders are improving their behavior while in the community?

Based on national data stating that five in six released prisoners are rearrested, Crime in America, many multiple times, and the findings from a variety of Department of Justice studies showing that the overwhelming majority of offenders receiving programs recidivate, Crime in America, how are the states overcoming these obstacles?

Oregon Versus Media Investigation

About 35 percent of people found criminally insane in Oregon and then let out of supervised psychiatric treatment were charged with new crimes within three years of being freed by state officials.

Between Jan. 1, 2008, and Oct. 15, 2015, the state freed 220 defendants who had been acquitted of felonies because they could not tell right from wrong or control their actions. About a quarter of them, or 51 people, were charged with attacking others within three years. Twenty-five were charged with lesser crimes. Eighteen others were charged more than three years later, including 12 people for violent incidents.

They were charged with felonies about as often as people freed after serving prison terms — both 16 percent — according to our analysis and the Oregon Department of Corrections.

On its website, the board assures Oregonians that repeat offenses by people it supervises are exceedingly rare events, with only 0.46 percent of defendants committing new crimes each year, ProPublica.

Bureau of Prisons Redefinition

The Bureau of Prisons “fixed” its problem with the treatment of mentally ill prisoners by pretending they aren’t mentally ill. Federal officials promised in 2014 that they would improve the quality of health care given to mentally ill inmates but that hasn’t happened. Instead, prison staff now are diverting seriously ill prisoners away from the treatment programs they need by minimizing their illnesses, THE MARSHALL PROJECT.

Louisiana School Claims Versus the New York Times

A founder of T.M. Landry College Preparatory School described him as a “bright, energetic, compassionate and genuinely well-rounded” student whose alcoholic father had beaten him and his mother and had denied them money for food and shelter. His transcript “speaks for itself,” the founder, Tracey Landry, wrote, but Mr. Sassau should also be lauded for founding a community service program, the Dry House, to help the children of abusive and alcoholic parents. He took four years of honors English, the application said, was a baseball M.V.P. and earned high honors in the “Mathematics Olympiad.”

The narrative earned Mr. Sassau acceptance to St. John’s University in New York. There was one problem: None of it was true. “I was just a small piece in a whole fathom of lies,” Mr. Sassau said.

In reality, the school falsified transcripts, made up student accomplishments and mined the worst stereotypes of black America to manufacture up-from-hardship tales that it sold to Ivy League schools hungry for diversity, NY Times.

Revising Data

Governments “revisit” their presentation of statistics frequently. Most revisions are methodological in nature to make sure that the numbers are counted within established protocols.

There are also times when the data offered makes no sense; for example, including escaped or rearrested or sick offenders or those currently engaged in programs in unemployment numbers. If offenders are unavailable for employment, why count them as unemployed?

But the current imperative of corrections is to reduce the fiscal impact on government. It’s my contention that most governors (and endless advocacy groups) have demanded less recidivism to reduce the costs of incarceration.

My Suggestion for Reporters

Every crime reporter in the country should send a Freedom of Information Act or its state equivalent to officials and simply ask, “How many times has your definition of recidivism changed?” “How many times has the data collected changed?” “What were the changes?” “Why were changes made?” “Did changes alter recidivism numbers?”

If a state declares that a strategy works, what independent data supports their claims?

My Hypothesis

There is a saying in management; what gets measured gets done. There are states that do not record arrests, only reconvictions and returns to prison. That greatly lowers recidivism numbers even though the US Sentencing Commission states that in doing so, you do not get an accurate view of recidivism. The US Department of Justice measures all three.

I believe that states are recording reduced recidivism based on lowering standards. Instead of twenty infractions, drug positives, noncompliance with court or parole commission standards, and new crimes resulting in recidivism, states have simply increased the number of infractions that result in recidivism. Correctional employees and parole and probation agents suggest as much in a variety of social media forums. Some jurisdictions do not include or report arrests.

Is This Wrong?

Not necessarily. What I learned about corrections is that you have to manage your population within the realm of your resources. In previous years, parole and probation agents sent too many back to prison; they quickly got rid of troublemakers without trying to manage them in the community.

The primary objection is transparency. Telling citizens that there is less recidivism doesn’t necessarily mean they are safer or that states are doing a better job.

If state or local officials are open about the what’s counted, and lay their cards on the table for all to see, then I have no objections. Prison and parole and probation capacities have to be managed. Resources should be focused on the most dangerous.

There is an inside joke that making sausage and decisions about offenders is something the public doesn’t want to see.

My guess is that many jurisdictions don’t make the process public. Telling all that recidivism is reduced when you have done nothing more than change what you measure is disingenuous.

State Examples

Virginia claims the lowest rate of recidivism in the country but their practices make this claim doubtful, Crime in America.

This site previously looked at state claims while noting that some seem vaild, some do not, Crime in America.

There is a new report offers recent reductions in recidivism from eleven states, CSG Justice Center. Most cited strategies have little documentation as to reducing recidivism. They cite the Second Chance Act, a bipartisan bill Congress passed ten years ago, that supported some of these efforts to improve outcomes. The problem is that the Department of Justice’s Second Chance Act evaluation showed no reduction in recidivism, Most evaluations, when there are reductions, cite small declines of less than ten percent.


I return to my challenge to crime reporters, what changes have been made to definitions of recidivism? Why?

What independent data supports any of the listed strategies as to reducing recidivism?

Throughout my career and collegiate studies, I was told that transparency was vital to gain the trust of citizens, reporters and oversight bodies.

Has that changed?

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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