Sunday, November 05, 2006

Texas Recidivism Rates: Is "why are they so low?" the wrong question?

On Wednesday I asked why are Texas recidivism rates so low? State data showed Texas' three-year re-incarceration rate is half that of California's, and more than 40% below the national average. I received some very interesting comments to that post, as well as several emails, and believe I can shed a little more light on that subject - or at least cast light from different angles.

I'd at first suggested that Texas' numbers might simply be underreported, but a commenter referred me to this 2005 study (pdf) by the UC-Irvine Institute on Evidence Based Corrections that purported to make apples-to-apples comparisons of recidivism between California, Texas and other large states. On page four of that report, graphs show Texas with half California's new-conviction rate, and about a 40% lower re-arrest rate.

That seems to confirm Texas statistics relative to other states are likely accurate. If so, we should be looking for reasons why the rates are lower, not to debunk the premise. Indeed, I may have posed the wrong question, failing to grasp all the assumptions that underly how we view recidivism rates. Possibly the question shouldn't be why are Texas' rates so low, but are low recidivism rates a good thing?

That sounds counterintuitive - under TDCJ's definition, recidivism means formerly incarcerated people either violate parole or commit new crimes. We don't want that, right? So how is it possible that higher recidivism rates might actually be a sign of a healthier system? Here's an insightful hypothesis from an anonymous Grits commenter:
My guess would be that Texas is putting a lot of low level people in prison who aren't really crooks and don't need to be there. Since many weren't actually bad guys to begin with, when they get out fewer re-offend. Just a guess.
Good guess! Michael Connelly, an academic who blogs at Corrections Sentencing, agreed that this could explain the numbers, and noted that Oklahoma's re-incarceration rates are similar to Texas'. Said Michael:
One way to check would be to look at the LSI-R scores of the recidivists or to take a cohort of releasees and do a survival analysis of them by low, medium, and high LSI-R scores. In OK, the numbers are telling, roughly 3/4ths of the "low" are still out 3 years later while only about 7% of the "high" are. It would make a good study.
Okay, now we're getting somewhere - an hypothesis and a suggested methodology for testing it. I love Grits commenters!! :-) LSI-R scores are a risk categorization tool developed by community supervision experts to help weigh public safety risks that must be managed by probation and parole departments.

Michael's right that would be a fascinating study. If Texas' breakdown was similar to Oklahoma's that would likely explain the disparity, but it wouldn't mean we're doing something right - it would mean Texas overincarcerates low-risk offenders who probably weren't going to re-offend in up to 3/4 of the cases.

Data presented in response to this post suggest at least two factors contribute to Texas' lower recidivism rates compared with California and the national average: overincarceration of low-risk offenders, and more Texas' prisoners serving their full sentence than being released on parole. About half of California's re-incarcerations stem from parole revocations, but as the UC-Irvine study pointed out,
If someone isn’t on parole supervision, they can’t be violated for technical parole violations. The fact that nearly all California prisoners report to parole agents partially explains our high technical violation rates.
In Texas, though, according to this Urban Institute study an emailer pointed me to, most state jail felons serve their full term and are released without any supervision. (The max penalty for a state jail felony is 2 years incarceration, and those offenders cannot be paroled.) Said the Urban Institute:
most (84 percent) state prisoners are subject to postrelease supervision, compared with less than 3 percent of confinees [state jail offenders].
So a large number of prisoners - mostly low-level drug and property offenders - go unsupervised upon release in Texas, while California supervises nearly everyone they release. Since Texas state jail felons aren't being supervised, they can't be revoked, but I'm not sure that means the public is any safer. It begs the question, would it improve public safety if they were incarcerated less and supervised more intensively during a re-entry period?

I don't know the answer, but it's an interesting question. The conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation has called for giving state jail felons parole in part for this reason.

What else might explain the difference? I think California's famous Prop 36, or the "Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act" of 2000, might be a big factor. That law mandated community supervision and drug treatment instead of incarceration for low-level drug offenders. Not only has it saved Califonia money, it dramatically reduced the number of low-level drug offenders entering prison in the first place.

To complete the loop, if we assume many Prop 36 offenders would reside in the low-level LSI-R risk categories, anyway, they're likely among the class of offenders who, when incarcerated in Oklahoma, did not reoffend 3/4 of the time.

So are low recidivism rates necessarily a good thing if they mean we're incarcerating low-level offenders who would be unlikely to re-offend whether they went to prison or not? Is that best for the taxpayers and public safety, especially if truly violent offenders must be released to house them? By that analysis, a system that supervises more low-level offenders in the community may increase recidivism rates, but only because we'd be reserving prison for the real bad guys, not simply people struggling with addiction.

I don't know if this analysis is correct: I'm merely exploring the question, here, with the help of Grits commenters, and obviously there are a number of variables to consider. But before now I've only ever considered higher recidivism rates a bad thing. This discussion makes me think the matter is really a lot more complex than that simple construction would lead us to believe.

Thanks, Grits commenters, for the great information. And let me know what you think of this new open-sourced hypothesis.


Michael Connelly said...

If you catch corrections directors at the right time, they will tell you that, should their systems be effective in moving more low-level offenders to treatment, their recidivism rates will go up and they have to inoculate their appointers to be ready to have to explain to the public why that's happening and a good thing. You can see the obvious counterintuitive incentives to keep things as they are. Now let me throw this one at you: if people are more likely to report offenses to law enforcement that is effective than folks who are ineffective, then should you live in a community with a high or low crime rate??

Anonymous said...

State Jail felons must serve EVERY day of their sentence and they serve it day-to-day -- there is no good conduct time. Thus, they are not supervised when released (unless they were serving a higher felony sentence at the same time and are released on parole from that charge.

And while many "non-violent" offenders are sentenced to either State Jails and/or other penitentiaries, they are hardly ever "first time" offenders. Most jurisdictions use probation, reduced sentences, and every tool available to try to keep from sending someone to the pen.

I, too, am amazed at the low recidivism rate being cited, and wonder if it is being quoted for the entire system, which does include the relatively low-risk State Jail Felons.

It would be interesting to know the rate for the more serious offenders -- i.e., those convicted of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd degree felonies, plus capital murder (from which you previously could be paroled). It has to be much higher.

I'd recommend you contact Judge Larry Gist of Beaumont for his insight. Larry has great experience and is considered one of the leading Texas Judges on the idea of sentencing alternatives.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Judge, someone else suggested that, too, but the statistics aren't caveated that way, and the UC Irvine study claims to compare apples to apples without mentioning the discrepancy. Be sure to look at LBB's 2005 recidivism report. Maybe I'm missing something, but I couldn't find anywhere that said the statistic excluded state jails. I'll email the report authors at LBB to doublecheck, and maybe see what Judge Gist has to say.

Michael, your question makes my head hurt. The recidivism conundrum is difficult enough to wrap my brain around. ;) Best,

Keirasings said...

In my opinion the reason is simple. Would you want to go back to a place where in the heat of summer, can reach upward of 100 degrees? There are no air conditioners in all Texas prisons. It's just a factor that no one thinks to take into account. How about asking an actual offender, "why?" They will tell you about the agonizing heat, no soap or toiletries for those without money in their accounts, and various other restrictions.

The theory that the state jail system aids in the lower rate is extremely flawed. Even though no parole is exacted on these inmates, there ARE restrictions placed on every state jail felon for up to 6 months after release. One such example is suspension of a driver's license. Any such violation of this can result in further incarceration.

I would also like to see further comparative analysis between the two systems and what kind of help or rehabilitation is available to each--which may help to enlighten us as to why Texas seems more successful on this. There must be other factors taken into account such as Texas' prisons may get a higher rate of spiritual needs services(religious) as opposed to California, for example.

No Turning Back Prison Ministry said...

I know this is a little bit old, but I just came upon it while trying to find the newest numbers for a newspaper article I am writing about our ministry to show that faith based re-entry programs are actually helping those incarcerated to not re-offend and I had to post a response to something that I saw both on this and the previous blog post.

The truth of the matter is that Tx offers a lot of spiritual and re-entry programs and we are working hard to keep people from re-offending upon release, support groups are on the rise, and a lot of the men and women getting out of prison are going back into the prisons to show that they can do it, they can get out and change their lives.

As for no air conditioners and things like that, yes there are air conditioners in the prisons, they do get toiletries and things like that even if they don't have money, it is called indegent supplies and it is against their rights to not be allowed to have those things, so if you know someone who is in prison not getting toiletries or envelopes, stamps or paper, tell them that they need to send an I-60 to their chaplain and get on the indegent list (there are qualifications they must meet to be considered indegent).

I know this information first hand, my husband and I operate a prison ministry within Texas, and my husband was incarcerated in a prison in Texas twice.

I would like to leave you with the newest numbers for Texas, a continued decline: