Chapter Two

Summary of Recidivism Research

Unfortunately, there is no way to know for certain whether Connecticut felons are more or less predisposed to reoffend than felons in other states or nationally. Recidivism rates cannot be compared because of the lack of standardized definitions or measurement. In fact, many states have yet to begin tracking recidivism. However, there are some consistent findings throughout research literature.

This chapter will summarize what is known about the criminal patterns of repeat offenders based on recent, relevant national literature and research. The information provides a context for the program review committee's subsequent analysis and findings on whether the rates of recidivism among Connecticut felons are similar to those patterns and trends.

Patterns and Trends in Recidivism

Many of the same factors that cause a person to initially commit crime are common to repeat offenders. Although the research varies on which specific demographic or crime characteristics are the best predictors of recidivism, there is consensus that some factors have significant correlations to repeat criminal activity. They are summarized below. (A selected bibliography of key sources is contained in Appendix D.)

Age. The younger an offender is at first arrest as an adult, the more likely he or she is to become a repeat offender. Younger criminals in general are more likely to recidivate than older offenders. Most studies agree that such early, established patterns of criminal activity are among the most important predictors of recidivism. Even so, it is important to note that some older offenders can be just as likely to recidivate as younger offenders.

Gender. There is consensus in the literature that a significant proportion of the nation's male population (some studies cited 25 to 35 percent of urban males) are arrested for a serious crime at some time during their lives. Males are about three to five times more likely than females to be arrested for a crime.

Race. Recidivism studies have found certain minority groups (e.g., African Americans and Hispanics) tend to have higher rates of rearrest. African American males are two to three times more likely than Caucasian males to be arrested for a crime in their lives. This trend is consistent throughout the research. Studies further conclude, however, that substance abuse, socio-economic status, age, and prior criminal record are stronger predictors of recidivism than race.

History of substance abuse. In most studies, many of the offenders who repeatedly committed crimes had a history of drug use. However, the more chronic and serious the substance abuse problem, the more likely the person was to reoffend and to have an extensive criminal record. The research also showed drug offenders were more likely to be rearrested for property crimes than drug sale or possession offenses.

Lack of education or employment. Researchers have concluded a lack of educational attainment and/or work experience has made reintegration into the community after prison and complying with parole or probation requirements difficult for many offenders. Without such skills, offenders have trouble attaining steady, gainful employment, and studies suggest these offenders will return to criminal activity either to earn a living or because they believe they have no other alternative lifestyle choice. Rearrest rates for those without a high-school diploma or job training have been shown to be much higher than for individuals with more experience or success in the job market.

Criminal history. Offenders with multiple prior arrests and convictions, especially if concentrated in a short time span, are frequently rearrested. Many researchers found offenders who commit property crimes such as burglary and larceny have the highest rates of recidivism and reoffend in less time than other types of criminals. This trend has been partially attributed to the increasing number of offenders with a substance abuse problem. Many times property crimes are committed for financial gain to obtain the money necessary to support an offender's drug habit. Property offenders are also likely to commit these crimes while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

There is conflicting evidence about whether or not repeat offenders "specialize" in one type of crime, that is they commit the same type of crime over and over. Although some studies observed a tendency for recidivators to commit the same types of offenses as they had when first sentenced, others found offenders to be "opportunistic" in their criminal activity (i.e., taking advantage of circumstances and committing a variety of crimes).

Research on persistent criminal behavior generally indicates crime is not a life-long activity for many offenders. Most offenders were found to have ended their criminal "careers" during early adulthood (about 26 to 30 years old), and those who continued committing crime were not typically arrested for the last time until at least the age of 40. Studies have suggested the average period of time between first and final arrest was approximately five years, and property offenders have shorter than average periods of criminality and violent offenders longer periods. Research further indicates a relatively small group of repeat offenders are responsible for a disproportionately large number of serious crimes.

It is complicated to interpret criminal history data because many crimes in the United States go unreported or unsolved and do not result in an arrest. Some first-time offenders, therefore, may actually be repeat offenders with undocumented criminal histories and may have began their criminal activity at young ages.

Probationers. The research indicates rearrest rates for probationers as a group are slightly less than the rates for released inmates as a group, but probationers and inmates with similar criminal histories -- in terms of the number of prior arrests -- had similar rates of recidivism. Probationers convicted of property (e.g., robbery and burglary) and drug offenses have the highest rates of recidivism.

Studies found, however, no differences in the rearrest rates of probationers under intensive supervision and in "regular" probation supervision programs. They also did not identify a relationship between recidivism and the amount of contact probation officers had with offenders.

Parole and probation violations. Researchers have found repeat offenders often commit technical violations either on parole or probation. A technical violation is misbehavior by an offender under supervision that is not by itself a criminal offense and generally does not result in an arrest (e.g., failing to report to a parole or probation officer for a scheduled office visit, missing a curfew, lack of employment or attendance at school, testing positive for drug or alcohol use, or contacting a victim or co-defendant). However, serious technical violations (e.g., escape or repeated failure to report, violent crime) or a pattern of misbehavior while on parole or probation can result in reimprisonment. National research attributes the unprecedented growth in the nation's prison population to the reincarceration of parole and probation violators.

Some technical violators receive no sanctions and others may have their conditions modified to respond to the misbehavior, yet continue to be supervised in the community rather then being reincarcerated. Overall, most studies agree technical violators often pose little or no threat to public safety and can be safely managed in the community.

Program participation. There are a wide range of prison and community-based programs developed to rehabilitate, supervise, and treat offenders. They were designed to address the known causes and risk factors of crime, but there has not been systematic or scientific evaluation of the programs. Therefore, the existing research shows mixed results.

There is considerable debate among researchers about the effectiveness of prison- and community-based treatment and rehabilitative programs and their impact on rates of recidivism. Some studies contend there is clear evidence selected programs reduce the likelihood of repeat criminal activity by offenders, but others find the results are inconclusive or show that programs have little impact.

Overall, the research suggests programs can have a modest impact on reducing recidivism, and it is overly pessimistic to assume treatment and rehabilitation do not work. There is general agreement among researchers interventions for repeat offenders should combine a variety of components such as education, work training, counseling, and other services, be intensive, and be tailored to offender subgroups (i.e., sex offenders, women, gang members, mentally ill, etc). However, programs that have been proven to reduce recidivism in one setting or among a certain type of offender are not always replicated successfully in another venue or with other offenders.

It is important to note there are also other measures of a program's success besides rates of recidivism. For example, prison-based programs keep inmates occupied and may be used as incentives for good behavior thereby reducing disruptions and assaults on staff or other inmates. Community-based programs keep offenders busy and provide a structured routine, especially for those who are not employed or attending school. The programs can also serve a public relations function by easing a community's concern that unsupervised offenders are residing in the area.


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