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Over the past few decades, the United States has built more jails and prisons than colleges; there are now more than 5,000 of them across the 50 states, to be precise. And as the Washington Post reported in January, there are more Americans shipping off to prison than to two- or four-year degree programs in some parts of the country. Mass incarceration is now a signature of Americana like cowboy westerns, reality television, and cheap romance novels.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC), an independent agency within the judicial branch which writes federal sentencing guidelines and studies federal crime and sentencing policies, earlier this month released a major new study, ‘Recidivism Among Federal Offenders: A Comprehensive Overview‘.
Drawing on data on more than 25,400 former inmates who were either released outright from federal prisons or placed on probation in 2005, the 60-page report found almost half (49.3%) had, within the next eight years, been arrested again, whether for a new offense or for violating conditions of their parole or release. Among the offenders released or paroled in 2005, during the same period nearly a third (31.7%) had been re-convicted, with 24.7% of them also re-incarcerated.
Re-arrest rates were higher (52.5%) for ex-prisoners who had been released than for those who had been gone on probation (35.1%). The research also showed there was typically that re-offenses occurred fairly quickly, generally within the first two years after release or parole (the average interval was about 21 months).
The variables with the strongest correlation to the likelihood of a future offense turned out to be a prisoner’s age at the time of release and probation and previous criminal history - with likely recidivism increasing for younger prisoners and with every increase in criminal history.
Inmates who were released while younger than 21 showed the highest level of re-arrest (67.6%), while those who got out after age 60 had a re-arrest rate of 16%. The prisoners covered in the study averaged age 33 at time of sentencing and 36 at time of release. The study included 1,048 prisoners who were older than 60 when released or paroled, over 4% of the total.
Within the six categories of prior criminal history, former inmates in the lowest level re-offended at a 30.2% rate, while those in the highest level were re-arrested at an 80.1% rate. The type of past offenses and the prisoner’s education level - which ran from 34.3% without a high school degree, 67.5% who had completed high school, 21.4% with some college, and 7.5% with college degrees - also had some effect on recidivism rates, but not as strongly as age and level of criminal history.
The most common crime for which released or paroled prisoners were likely to be re-arrested was assault (as was the case for about a quarter of recidivists). Among serious offenses, the other more frequent crimes on re-arrest were offenses against public order, drug trafficking and larceny.
Using a Bureau of Justice Statistic study finding inmates released from state prisons have a five-year recidivism rate of 76.6%, the USSC study calculated comparable federal prisoners released have a 44.7% re-arrest rate after five years.
The total population covered by the new study included 25,431 federal prisoners who were released or paroled in 2005 and were citizens, with trackable presentencing reports and criminal history records, who had not been reported dead, escaped or detained, and whose sentence had not been vacated. Male prisoners made up 81.7% of the total, and the racial composition of the study population was white 43.7%, black 33.9%, Hispanic 17.8% and other 4.5%.