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New Crimes, Not Technical Violations Driving Prison Intakes
By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Published: 07/01/2019

There is endless debate as to why released prisoners are returned to prison. Some contend that it’s technical violations and not new crimes that are fueling prison intakes.

The problem with that assertion is data from the Department of Justice stating that the overwhelming percentage of criminal arrests by released prisoners were based on new criminal charges and not technical violations.

This isn’t to say that technical violations are not serious unto themselves. Previous data state that escapes/absconding from supervision or former inmates choosing a short time in jail for a new criminal charge instead of enhanced supervision in the community (i.e., drug treatment) via a plea-bargain are common.

Former prisoners having scores of technical violations (twenty to forty and more) is not unusual. Not paying fines, restitution, child support, and other infractions are frequent.

Technical violations are often intermingled with new criminal charges. Because the overwhelming percentage of criminal charges for “all” defendants involve plea-bargains, it’s easier for the justice system to proceed with a charge of escape/absconding than trying to prove a burglary or robbery. Pleading guilty to a technical violation rather than a new crime may bring a shorter sentence.

See data cited at Technical Violations.

Previous Research–The Vast Majority Of Released Offenders Are Rearrested

The overwhelming percentage of released offenders are rearrested during and after their period of community supervision; eighty-four percent per the new USDOJ data below. See an overview here, Offender Recidivism. I have seen state data where arrests are higher for some categories of released offenders.

New Research From The Bureau of Justice Statistics

“Recidivism of Sex Offenders” is newly released research from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) of the US Department of Justice. It contains interesting data that goes beyond the topic. These include overall recidivism of released prison inmates (based on nine years of study) and the categories for rearrests.

The data includes findings on sex “and” all categories of released offenders.

Violations of probation or parole “are” new criminal charges if authorities decide to revoke community supervision. Revocations could result in enhanced supervision requirements in the community or returns to prison or jail.

They are coded as a public order offense. Other public order offenses include charges for failure to appear in court or contempt of court. This category also includes weapons offenses, DUI/DWI, obstruction of justice, commercialized vice, disorderly conduct, and other miscellaneous offenses.

Arrests For New Crimes

There is a finding from the BJS sex offender report that is startling:

The press release offers the following statement: “Almost all prisoners who were re-arrested (96% of released sex offenders and 99% of all released offenders) were arrested for an offense other than a probation or parole violation,” BJS.

What Does This Mean?

It means that the overwhelming number of offenders returning to the justice system via arrests are there for new crimes, not technical violations of parole and probation.

What It Doesn’t Mean

Returns to the justice system based on arrests doesn’t mean that the charges will be prosecuted, or the original charge is what prosecutors proceed with, or the defendant will be found guilty.

As stated, new crimes and technical violations are often intermingled. While coded as a technical violation, it was likely that a new arrest bought the person back into the judicial/parole commission system.

There are over fifty states and territories having diverse laws and procedures which makes the job of the Bureau of Justice Statistics daunting if not impossible to interpret.

New arrests may be the driving force but how those new arrests are disposed of is extremely difficult for a federal agency to interpret.


Regardless, the BJS data brings a new understanding regarding the debate as to why people on parole find themselves in additional jeopardy.

A Different Interpretation–National Public Radio (mostly direct quotes edited for brevity)

National Public Radio offers a new analysis from The Council of State Governments Justice Center without any mention of the data above.

“Wake-Up Call About A Broken System: New Study Shows Failings Of Probation, Parole” states that nearly half the people admitted to state prisons in the U.S. are there because of violations of probation or parole, according to a new nationwide study that highlights the personal and economic costs of the practice.

The Council of State Governments Justice Center said the majority of these violations are for “minor infractions,” such as failing a drug test or missing a curfew. Those so-called technical violations cost states $2.8 billion every year, the report says.

Criminal justice advocates say the analysis amounts to a call to action.

“This should serve as a wake-up call that our probation and parole systems are not healthy, not functioning as intended and need to be reformed,” said Juliene James, director of criminal justice for Arnold Ventures, a philanthropic foundation that funded the study.

About 95,000 people are locked up because of technical violations on any given day, the report says. In 20 states, those minor infractions account for more than half of prison admissions, NPR.

Another Opposing Source

The nation’s flawed community supervision system operates like a revolving door, ordering individuals back to prison for violations as minor as a missed meeting with a probation officer, according to a new report by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, in what advocates say is a “wake-up call” for reform. The Crime Report.


It’s massively difficult for most of us to come to grips with criminal justice reform or policy when one source asserts that technical violations are driving prison intakes and the Department of Justice suggests that it’s new arrests, not technical violations that are the center of the debate.

With multiple Department of Justice research stating that rearrests and reincarcerations for released offenders affect most, assertions that technical violations are driving prison intakes seem to be grounded in advocacy, not data.

This isn’t to suggest that technical violations haven’t been overused in the past, or that we shouldn’t take a hard look at revocations (new criminal charges) based on technical violations. It’s equally important to understand that new criminal charges may be minor or not prosecuted or found not guilty. Only those truly deserving should be in prison.

But when you consider that fifty-five percent of current prison inmates are there for crimes of violence, and that the remainder have either histories of violence or multi-repeat arrests or prosecutions or incarcerations, or that only a fraction of convicted felons get prison time, new criminal charges upon release from prison should not come as a shock to anyone.

As to technical violations, some suggest that they are minor issues when many are not. Escape/absconding, pleading guilty to a criminal charge rather than having enhanced supervision requirements in the community plus the sheer number of infractions have accountability and public safety considerations.

We need to rededicate ourselves to offering the programs and strategies that can reduce these numbers but for the moment, for released prisoners, the data seems clear that it’s new crimes and not technical violations that are driving new intakes into prison.

Reprinted with permission from https://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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