The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics released a troubling report today on the likelihood of ex-offenders finding themselves back in the criminal justice system after being released from prison.

Taking a sample of over 68,000 inmates released in 2005, the report estimates that 77% of offenders post-incarceration in during that year were re-arrested within five years. This totaled over 5.5 million arrests in the time span. The sample came from the 30 states that make up three-quarters of the released prisoners nationwide.

Interestingly, prisoners released on community supervision were just as likely to be arrested (77%) as those released unconditionally. At first blush, this may lead individuals to believe that community supervision is not effective at reducing recidivism. However, an apples-to-apples comparison cannot be made between the two data sets, for the following reasons:

  • First, it’s important to note that the individuals within the study are receiving some sort of supervision post-release from prison, not as their initial sentence. Recidivism rates for individuals receiving pure community supervision or that are placed into treatment programs typically have much lower recidivism rates than those imprisoned. This is partially due to the type of offender eligible for alternative sanctions, but also in part to proven success rates of community supervision and treatment programs.
  • Second, it’s impossible to tell from this data set the type of offender each group consists of. It’s possible that a larger percentage of individuals given continued monitoring are higher-level offenders than those individuals that are released without any supervision. It would likely follow that judges would dole out community supervision post-release to individuals they would like to keep an eye on, rather than those that are given straight release.
  • Third, individuals that are being monitored can find themselves in prison for technical, non-criminal violations of their parole or community supervision, such as missing a meeting or failing a drug test. This means their chances for getting rearrested are greatly increased than those given straight release, who would have to be accused of committing another crime to be locked up again.

With our nation spending a total of over $80 billion on corrections each year, we should be getting a better return on our investment.  States that have committed to criminal justice reform such as Texas have shown that greater emphasis on treatment and community supervision for low-level offenders, reduces prison populations, reduces crime, and reduces recidivism. The federal government and states that have not reformed should use these numbers as a wake-up call to follow proven methods to keep their neighborhoods safer.