Cold facts on recidivism undermine case for leniency legislation

Last week, the Department of Justice released an updated study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) showing that 83 percent of prisoners released by states are re-arrested within nine years of their release. 44 percent of released state prisoners were arrested during the first year after release, 68 percent were arrested within three years, and 79 percent within six years.

The study encompassed 30 states and accounted for 77 percent of all persons released from state prisons nationwide during the period under study. Daniel Horowitz discusses the study here. Kent Scheidegger does so here.

The results of the study should deter the Senate from embracing the FIRST STEP legislation passed by the House just before the BJS figures were published. Indeed, the BJS numbers undermine FIRST STEP in multiple ways.

First, it is estimated that FIRST STEP would mandate the immediate release of at least 4,000 federal felons before they serve their full sentence. Given the recidivism numbers from the BJS study, we know that a high percentage of the 4,000 will commit crimes during the period during which, absent FIRST STEP, they would be behind bars. In other words, FIRST STEP means significantly more crime.

As I argued here, the FIRST STEP bill is just that — a first step to the release of thousands of additional prisoners. It’s also a first step to shorter mandatory minimum sentences. Thus, FIRST STEP is the first step to a crime wave.

But even if there is no second step, the BJS numbers show that FIRST STEP means more crime sooner. That’s what any Senator who supports FIRST STEP is voting for.

Second, the BJS study tells us that the crimes that federal drug felons will commit aren’t confined to drug crimes. According to the study, more than three-quarters (77 percent) of released drug offenders were arrested for a non-drug crime within nine years, and more than a third (34 percent) were arrested for a violent crime.

So much for the argument we hear over and over again from Team Leniency that those incarcerated for drug crimes are “non-violent offenders.” As Daniel Horowitz puts it, “when you let out drug offenders early from prison in this era, they will not only go back to selling even deadlier drugs, killing thousands, they will also commit other crimes” including overtly violent ones.

Third, the numbers undermine the rational for FIRST STEP used by certain conservative Senators such as John Cornyn. They argue that some states have made great strides when it comes to rehabilitating prisoners. Thus, the argument goes, statistics about recidivism rates among federal prisoners do not provide a sound basis for opposing sentencing reform, provided the reform also includes corrections reform.

The idea is to bring model state prisoner rehabilitation programs into the federal system. This, it is said, will cause recidivism rates to plummet, making America safe for the early release of federal drug felons and for a reduction of mandatory minimums.

The BJS numbers tell us that the states, collectively, are doing no better than the feds when it comes to rehabilitating prisoners. But what about “model” states like John Cornyn’s home state of Texas, so often touted by sentencing and corrections reform advocates?

It turns out that Texas isn’t doing any better than the feds either. The numbers that reform advocates use to calculate recidivism in Texas count only re-incarcerations, not re-arrests. By contrast, the federal system measures recidivism by re-arrests (to be sure not everyone arrested has committed a crime but then, not everyone who has committed a crime is arrested). If one compares apples to apples — federal re-arrests to Texas re-arrests — the recidivism rate in Texas is actually higher than the federal rate, according to the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys.

FIRST STEP is thus founded on a fiction — the view that enlightened states have discovered the key to the age-old problem of how to rehabilitate criminals. Conservatives, of all people, should be skeptical of such claims. We’re the ones who aren’t supposed to believe in magic.

Let’s see recidivism rates plummet on a sustained basis, using apples to apples comparisons, before the first federal prisoner is released early and the first mandatory minimum is reduced. Until that happy day, the numbers warn us that early release and reduced sentences are a recipe for a spike in crime, including violent crime. No Senator, and certainly no Republican, should vote for that.

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