The study of recidivism, the repeated or habitual relapse into criminal behavior, has historical roots dating back to at least the 1890s [PDF link], and has a presence that spans numerous pressing social issues. It is a problem few fields have ever faced and is a multifarious thorn-in-the-side for the corrections industry. Recidivism, dubbed “one of the most fundamental concepts in criminal justice” by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and “a plague upon American society” by Prison Education, concerns the idea of an individual’s pattern of repetitive trouble with the criminal justice system and the wide-ranging costs, consequences, and pressures it creates.

While too broad and conceptually dense to fit one definition, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) says, every variation on the term follows the same three beats in the same order:

  1. Starting event: denoting full or conditional release from a given intervention (arrest, completion of a court-ordered program, parole)
  2. Measure of failure: the recidivist, having committed a new crime, suffers intervention—arrest or a “new commitment” such as drug rehab—at the hands of the system again
  3. Recidivism window: a measure of time that begins with the recidivist’s temporary freedom and ends at the “measure of failure” or another predetermined interval
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Although there is certainly an interesting discussion in the ways items 1 and 3 can be used to highlight the trait they bookend, the larger, newer story lies in what the figure has come to represent beyond the BJS’s definition. The expanded role the corrections industry will soon take as the change, as surprising for its bipartisan support as it is for the deeply embedded social virtues it reverses, continues to take hold from the legislature on down.

First steps: Understanding recidivism’s role in a post-“tough on crime” society

The NIJ’s “concept” wording is quite fitting in discussing recidivism if only because the phenomenon and its effects run a thread through sociology, psychology, economics, and the criminal justice and social service systems, amongst others. Perhaps the most important aspect comes from a debate so long-lived it was once a concern regarding Alcatraz and, far before that, the relative value of certain corrective practices at the (then-) cutting-edge Eastern State Penitentiary: punishment-versus-rehabilitation.Recidivism, titled a plague upon American society, evokes the long-lived debate – punishment-versus-rehabilitation. Click To Tweet

In recent decades, predominant social attitudes in the US have appeared to favor punishment. At times, we even added a third dimension to the list; one less concerned with preventing inmate self-improvement with the perception that it makes jail too easy or comfortable. This much is visible in the cultural carryover from phrases like “soft on crime,” a reputational keyword with an effect so corrosive politicians would go to great lengths to avoid having it attached to their respective brands. It is equally clear in the status a public persona with a “tough on crime” bent could garner, particularly one willing and able to express that toughness in a media-friendly way.

Whatever personal opinion one holds on either of these archetypes, the criminal justice climate instrumental to their creation was in many ways wholly different from the one we live in now. Violent crimes, a category that could understandably cause victims, their loved ones, and onlookers to harden their respective stances towards criminals, have plummeted so far for so long even consecutive years of modest upticks did little to close the gap.

Then there is the legislature. In December 2018, President Trump, elected in part on a platform of law and order, signed into law the bipartisan First Step Act, which enhances job training for inmates, “expands early-release programs,” and creates sentencing laws that “more equitably punish drug offenders.”

In this regard, one can consider it the first—and by far the most substantive—statement to come from this new criminal justice climate. It is a reform package rare both in scope and the way it unabashedly makes certain aspects of the system easier or less unfair to inmates, such as restricting the use of restraints on pregnant inmates, barring certain incarceration conditions, defining opioid addiction as a medical or mental illness, and provisions helping addicted inmates receive substance abuse counseling and rehabilitation. The bipartisan First Step Act, enhances job training for inmates, ‘expands early-release programs,’ and creates sentencing laws that more equitably punish drug offenders. Click To Tweet

A significant chunk of the act comes in the form of incentives and initiatives designed to negate, counterbalance, and discourage recidivism. By scale of response alone, the bill’s 127 uses of the word “recidivism” comprise the single biggest federal effort against the problem, which is a nod to the efficiencies and savings federal officials believe they can realize by minimizing it and perhaps an indication that the social needle has swung again towards rehabilitation.

Recidivism’s impacts on corrections are protracted, costly—and often, harsh

A document from Illinois’s Sentencing Policy Advisory Council (SPAC) [PDF link] exploring the issue from a state-level perspective is useful in understanding the hidden costs of recidivism. A single “recidivism event,” it says, inflicts an average projected cost of $151,662, broken down further into three sums:

  • $75,408: “tangible and intangible costs borne by victims”
  • $50,835: fees taken on by taxpayers, including court costs and “the costs of imposing sentences” in county/state facilities
  • $25,420: indirect losses from lower total economic activity

Over a span of five years, the SPAC study projects these costs to hit state pocketbooks for a total of $13 billion, an amount that could solely fund the entirety of Chicago’s budgetary needs for nearly a year-and-a-half. This holds direct relevance to any agency already burdened by recidivism in that the costs associated with incarcerating a first time offender are potentially repeatable from the same source multiple times.

More than any other area, this is where the idea of recidivism as a non-first offense shines through, and where costs associated with the phenomenon can become somewhat confusing for those less inclined to think of criminal justice intervention as a single, rehabilitative event. This increases the likelihood of returning with each visit, based on the recidivist’s difficulty finding a new job, chance of making criminal contacts with each stay, and the increasing probability of receiving a sentence from a judge unhappy with priors. The facility and larger system both risk a recurring visitor that takes extra space, requires extra revenue, and generally represents an extra burden.Recidivism is strengthened each visit, based on the difficulty of finding a new job, an increasing base of criminal contacts, and the increasing probability of a sentence from a judge unhappy with priors. Click To Tweet

Indeed, extra space and all that entails may represent the biggest challenge recidivists pose to correctional facilities today, given the unique level of contact jails and prisons have with return offenders. At issue is overcrowding, a problem that is not universal but extremely demanding. Health issues, spiking suicide rates among inmates, increased danger for staff, and potential adverse legal actions are just a few outcomes a jail or prison can face in the wake of disproportionate prisoner load. While the US incarceration rate—which gauges the number of inmates in the population per 100,000 adults and serves as a barometer of overall crowding —is down from a year-over-year perspective, even the country’s lowest rate in 20 years was unable to bump the US from its top spot amongst all countries.

A common thread within all these issues: the facility is left to deal with the brunt of the problem, despite holding little authority to address it in a long-term capacity. Facility stakeholders can continue to cram beds and ship burdensome recidivists to other states or systems, generally at high cost, and those higher up the chain of command may be able to exert enough influence to temporarily stop intake activity from certain sources. Yet temporary solutions are just that, and scrambling to put out the next fire hot off the last is no way to run a facility.
A common thread within all these issues: the facility is left to deal with the brunt of the problem, despite holding little authority to address it in a long-term capacity. Click To Tweet

With new changes, correctional facilities are more than a stop in the cycle

In perspective of First Step, federal corrections (and associated agencies/facilities) naturally gain greater power to address common problems related to recidivism. These specific capabilities obviously do not extend to state agencies, nor to the approximately 87 percent of US inmates they house.

Just as obvious, states and even local governments are free to take their own measures concerning the return of unwanted inmates. While data on the topic is inherently inconsistent, requiring deep collection and analysis over years to get right, the available statistics are to large degree what one would expect [PDF link]. High overall rates and category-based crises abound, giving the general sense that recidivism holds very little regard for division of government.

To this point, Louisiana offers an exemplary look at what a state can do in the name of general prison reform and in the interest of stopping recidivism. The word, “sweeping,” applies here without question, with a smart approach to stopping recidivism that starts well beyond the correctional environment: Fines are now tailored “to a person’s ability to pay.” For instance, halting the insidious return of debtor’s prison-style situations and halting recidivism that unquestionably costs the state more than it helped. Non-violent felons now have easier access to professional licenses, addressing an issue that begins with a desperate ex-convict looking for ways to survive post-incarceration, yet, nevertheless, ends with them back in the bullpen. Louisiana offers an exemplary look at what a state can do for prison reform by tailoring payments based on ability and easing access to professional licenses. Click To Tweet

For individual facilities, meanwhile, moves like these suggest a major social appetite for prison reform, a willingness from state- and federal-level decision makers to facilitate the same, and an implied, bipartisan attitude that giving inmates the tools they need to do better upon release is better than catch-and-release criminal justice. Nobody gains from a brutal cycle like recidivism. If First Step can stay true to its name, and more states can follow the lead Louisiana has taken with their commitment to improvement, everyone connected to the corrections industry has a slightly brighter future to which they can look forward.