We are failing to keep prisoners from ending up back behind bars.
An FKD Feature exclusive

The comprehensive failure of mass incarceration has been steadily gaining publicity across the United States, giving hope to the idea that massive reform is just around the corner.

The goal of the criminal justice system must be rehabilitation, so as to ensure that released prisoners are adequately transitioned into society. Our country’s disturbingly high recidivism rates suggest that we are failing to keep prisoners from ending up back behind bars.

Recidivism Rates in the United States

The latest study on overall recidivism rates tracked 404,638 released prisoners across 30 states from 2005 to 2010 to see how many had returned to prison.

The study found that 67.8 percent of released prisoners were arrested for a new crime within three years, and 76.6 percent were arrested within five years. More than a third of all prisoners who were arrested within five years of release were arrested within the first six months, and more than half were arrested by the end of the first year.

Within five years of release, 82.1 percent of property offenders, 76.9 percent of drug offenders, 73.6 percent of public order offenders and 71.3 percent of violent offenders were arrested for a new crime. This study has been widely accepted as evidence that recidivism is a serious national issue, one that must be considered a key part of mass incarceration reform.

Still, it is important to note that the statistics on recidivism found in this study have been challenged by several public figures in criminal justice.

A recent paper published in Crime & Delinquency, “Following Incarceration, Most Released Offenders Never Return to Prison,” attempts to refute the study by asserting that the study used a sample population in which repeat offenders were vastly overrepresented.


Using the National Corrections Reporting Program, which records prison terms for offenders back to 2000, the authors of the paper conclude that two out of three people who serve prison time never return, and only 11 percent come back multiple times.

No matter which percentage of return we trust, the numbers are alarming considering that over 650,000 prisoners are released each year.

When the States Took Notice of Recidivism

In the mid 2000s, several states began tackling the issue of recidivism through various programs after inmate release. In 2008, Congress passed the Second Chance Act, which established grants to fund the research and implementation of these programs.

A study tracked the progress of states using tactics to reduce their recidivism rates, and found that seven states had achieved significant reductions in recidivism, while an additional seven states had lessened their rates to some degree. The study was significant because it strongly suggested that recidivism rates can be reduced through statewide efforts.

Colorado was one of the states highlighted in the study. In 2007, Colorado was experiencing high rates of recidivism and a rapidly growing corrections population. The state focused its efforts on several important tactics: community-based treatment (including mental health and substance abuse programs), transitional programs to help acclimate released prisoners back into society, training sessions for parole boards to focus on individual needs of offenders and incentives for prisoners to participate in mental health programs.

By using these tactics, Colorado was able to reduce its recidivism rate by 5.8 percent between 2007 and 2010.

In-Progress Recidivism Solutions

Many other states are also taking action against recidivism with programs designed to reduce the chances of released inmates ending up back in prison.

"One of the main solutions proposed to reduce recidivism is easing the employment process for released prisoners to facilitate their transition back into society."

One of the main solutions proposed to reduce recidivism is easing the employment process for released prisoners to facilitate their transition back into society.

In New York, investors are teaming up with the Center for Employment Opportunities and providing $13.5 million to a program that sets former convicts up with temporary employment and support with a subsequent job search. The goal of the program is to reduce recidivism by eight percent.

Another solution proposed is to increase educational opportunities for prisoners, as studies have shown that this can reduce recidivism rates.

In 2015, Obama reinstated Pell Grant opportunities for prisoners, which had been excluded from them by Congress in 1994, in an effort to increase education in prisons.

Our Take

The Obama Administration, Congress and state legislatures are all realizing that it’s time to tackle mass incarceration. Reducing recidivism will be a crucial piece of this reform, and it’s important that states continue to invest in rehabilitation programs as well as find new ways to keep released prisoners from relapsing.


Posted 01.29.2016 - 05:35 pm EST