Crime rates are increasing across the United States. If history is any indication, many policymakers and Americans will look to our prisons and jails in the next few years to stop the crime rise.
But how do we know whether incarceration works as intended?
The existing standard for measuring whether someone is successful after release from prison is recidivism — a simple binary “yes or no” if a person commits another crime after leaving prison. Recidivism is used as a key metric for evaluating the effectiveness of prisons and reentry programs and as a marker of public safety.
The historical emphasis on recidivism among policy analysts, practitioners and scholars stems, at least in part, from a desire to establish a shared indicator of “success.” If you were rearrested, reconvicted or reincarcerated after leaving prison, you failed. If not, you succeeded. But binary measures of post-release success ignore decades of research on how and why individuals actually cease to commit crimes.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recently convened an expert committee, on which we served, to study alternative measures of success for the more than 600,000 persons who reenter society each year after leaving prison. The committee consisted of and consulted with research scholars from a variety of disciplines, including practitioners who work with individuals reentering society from prison and with victims of crime, and persons with lived experience of incarceration.
Researchers who study crime know that abandoning a criminal lifestyle is a gradual process that often takes years, and can depend on every aspect of a person’s life — from their health to their housing and family. This process of ending criminal activity is referred to as “desistance.” Like recovery from addiction, illness or disease, desistance can involve relapses.
But binary recidivism measures treat any return to crime as a failure, even if the return occurred in the midst of or even indicated progress toward eventual cessation — such as committing fewer or less serious crimes. For example, an individual who went to prison for a violent crime and is later re-arrested for low-level drug possession could be seen as taking an uneven path toward cessation, rather than pure and simple failure.
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