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Recidivism Is Inadequate Measure of Success After Prison, Says Report

National Academies | April 28, 2022

WASHINGTON — Recidivism is an inadequate measurement of success after release from prison, says a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The report recommends researchers develop supplementary measures that evaluate success across multiple areas of a person’s life after prison — including employment, housing, health, social support, and personal well-being — and that measure interactions with the criminal justice system with more nuance. Federal efforts should be directed to developing national standards for recidivism data and new measurements.

State and federal prisons in the U.S. release nearly 600,000 people annually. Recidivism — which refers to a return to criminal behavior — is a common measure of an individual’s success after release from prison, but it falls short of describing other, positive elements of reentry into society. The report says given the rehabilitative function of prisons and reentry supervision, expanded measures of post-release success would enable these systems to better understand their impact and best practices.

“Our report draws on the expertise of individuals who have experienced reentry, those who work in corrections and reentry services, as well as victims’ advocates and many other communities — and it’s clear that it’s time we recognize the numerous shortcomings of relying exclusively on recidivism data,” said Richard Rosenfeld, Curators’ Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and chair of the committee that wrote the report. “Better measures could open many doors for better decision-making and policy.”

The Limits of Recidivism

The new report, The Limits of Recidivism: Measuring Success After Prison, says the administrative data used to calculate recidivism rates are often limited. These data only describe specific legal system actions — such as arrests, convictions, or incarceration — but do not describe crimes that went undetected. These rates may also include non-criminal parole violations, and can reflect biases of the criminal justice system, such as where to police or who to arrest. To ensure recidivism data are used more accurately and precisely, the report recommends researchers, policymakers, and practitioners specify exactly which legal actions are included in administrative recidivism data.

Recidivism is also limited in that it is a binary measure, says the report. Decades of research have shown that ceasing criminal activity is a process and may involve setbacks. Recidivism rates fail to capture indicators of progress toward the cessation of criminal activity, such as reductions in the seriousness of criminal activity or increases in time between release and a criminal event. Researchers should supplement recidivism rates with these measures of moving away from crime, the report says.

To read the full report, click here.

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