Sunday, April 17, 2011

Pew recommendation on recidivism metric wrong for Texas

There was lots of MSM coverage this week of a new report (pdf) from the Pew Center on the States ranking states by recidivism rates, with Texas earning perhaps undeserved praise for our remarkably low rate. Doug Berman covered the report and rounded up these links:
  • From CBS News here, "Breaking the cycle of repeat crime offenders"
  • From CNN here, "Report promotes alternatives to prison as national recidivism rate holds steady"
  • From the Dayton Daily News here, "Ohio's decline in prison recidivism among steepest in US, study says."
  • From the Kansas City Star here, "Study praises efforts in Missouri, Kansas to cut prison recidivism"
  • From the Statesman Journal here, "Study hails Oregon's recidivism reduction even as funding cuts threaten it"
At the Austin Statesman, Mike Ward's coverage was typical of the spin put on Texas' relatively low numbers:
The study found that 31.9 percent of Texas convicts released from prison in 2004 had returned within three years. Of those released in 2007, the year the reforms began, the recidivism rate had dropped to 24.3 percent.

Other 41 states posted an average recidivism rate of 43.3 percent in 2004, and 45 percent in 1999, according to the study. While other recent studies hint that rate has fallen slightly, Texas is still among the lowest.

Texas once had a recidivism rate of more than 55 percent.

House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden, a Richardson Republican who was an architect of the reforms, said the study confirms what Texas numbers have shown is a downward trend.

“What we did four years ago is working, and this study confirms that once again,” Madden said.
I agree with Ward's assessment that "proposals under discussions by lawmakers this spring to drastically scale back recidivism, drug-treatment and training programs would likely backfire and end up costing taxpayers billions more to build new prisons." That's certainly the lesson from states described in the report like Michigan, where reentry investments paid off by allowing the state to "shrink its inmate population by 12 percent, [and] close more than 20 correctional facilities." There's a real risk that, in a short-sighted effort to cut the budget, the Texas Legislature will eliminate treatment and reentry programming when expanding it and closing prisons would put us on a more sensible path.

But Texas' low recidivism rate predated recent probation reforms, did not result from them, and in fact is more indicative of a problem than good public policy. Simply put, the recidivism rate as calculated in the report is the percentage of those released from prison who return within three years. So the first factor that affects that statistical calculation - before we talk about any programming - is the makeup of the prisoner cohort released, which in Texas now runs more than 71,000 people per year. The more low-risk people the state incarcerates, e.g., for drug possession and increasingly low-level property offenses, the lower recidivism rates will be. So states like Texas and Oklahoma have low recidivism rates not because we're doing a great job but because we lock up too many people in the first place.

For that reason, despite the laudable wisdom of their other suggestions, it would be a mistake for Texas to adopt Pew's first recommendation: To "Define Success as Recidivism Reduction and Measure and Reward Progress." Making recidivism reduction a performance measure for budgeting would result in bad public policy, creating a perverse incentive to overincarerate low-risk offenders - exactly the most expensive outcome that nobody wants. The Pew report itself acknowledges as much in a section titled "Unpacking the Numbers."
States that send comparatively low-risk offenders to prison are likely to see lower rearrest and violation rates compared with states that concentrate prison space on more dangerous offenders. If, for example, a state incarcerates a large proportion of lower-risk offenders, then its recidivism rate might be comparatively low, because such offenders would be, by definition, less of a risk to return to prison. A state with a larger percentage of serious offenders behind bars, on the other hand, might experience higher rates of reincarceration when those offenders return to the community.

Oklahoma exemplifies the former example: “A lot of people who might be put on probation or diverted into an alternative program in another state wind up going to prison in Oklahoma,” notes Michael Connelly, administrator of evaluation and analysis in the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. “These lower level folks aren’t as likely to recidivate, so it benefits our overall numbers and makes us look like we’re doing an even better job than we’re doing.” Oklahoma’s overall recidivism rate for offenders released in 2004 was 26.4 percent, the third lowest in the country, the Pew/ASCA survey found.
Grits has described this phenomenon in the past, including a discussion with Michael Connelly, who's quoted in the Pew report. States like Texas and Oklahoma face a completely different dynamic than a place like Utah, where high recidivism rates result mostly from technical violations. Texas has about a 32% recidivism rate, with 5% of those reincarcerated sent back to prison on technical parole violations, according to a chart from Pew labeled "Exhibit 2." In Utah, by contrast, a majority of returning prisoners making up their 54% recidivism rate are technical violators, so they have more opportunities to reduce non-criminal recidivism than we do. Once a parolee commits a new crime, they've made the critical decision; for technical violators, it's the state's decisionmaking that's boosting incarceration. So in Utah, I could see making recidivism reduction, particularly among technical violators, a straight-up "performance measure." But in Texas, Oklahoma, and probably other states the metric runs counter to common sense.

If and when legislators decide to fundamentally tackle their mass-incarceration addiction, whether by choice or if forced to by the vicissitudes of history and budgeting, Texas will have little option but to lock up fewer low-risk offenders, shorten probation lengths, and focus scarce criminal justice resources on a smaller, higher-risk group of people who actually threaten public safety. When that happens, recidivism may well increase somewhat even as crime rates continue to drop, as has happened in other states. That would mark a public policy success, even if Pew's proposed benchmark runs counter to the result.


Anonymous said...

Grits: My ol' grandpappy used to tell me "never look a gift horse in the mouth."


Anonymous said...

Thanks for holding the state responsible for recidivism. We all know it's not the criminal's fault. It's the state's fault.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

9:56, please work on your reading comprehension. I said no such thing. In fact, I argued AGAINST using recidivism reduction as a performance measure.

Plato, I wish I knew what "gift horse" you were talking about. Is the reference to overincarceration of low-risk inmates? If so, as far as I'm concerned you can take that nag back to the glue factory.

john said...

Is the mindset of control or punishment more a function of the Legislature, law enforcement, or judges? WHY do we lock up more and more? This State has plenty resources. How many prisoners from here (and other States) are released here? Does that increase our crime? And then the illegal-alien issue, certainly an increase. I know Dan Patrick wanted to let cops arrest us if we try to be private. HOW MUCH POWER will those in power TAKE, and why do we let them?

Thomas said...

Grits you had a very good post on April 11 entitled "Licensing strictures boost ex-felon unemployment". Unfortunately, I did not see the post until it was too late to post a timely comment. I did post the following anyway but this post regarding the Pew Report was just too good of an opportunity to pass up. So, I am posting my comments again. You see, IMHO, the roadblocks placed in the path of ex-offenders by the government has as much to do with creating recidivist as most any other circumstance you care to name.

BTW, There was a similar discussion last Wednesday, 04-13, on Professor Berman's blog regarding the recent Pew report on recidivism. I posted this same comment there which of course resulted in a full on distraction/diversionary assault by Bill Otis.

COMMENT: How in the world do politicians ever expect to reduce the recidivism rate if they continue to introduce stupid legislation that prohibits ex-offenders from seeking meaningful employment?

Two bills currently pending in Tennessee, HB 1070 by Rep. Barrett Rich & SB 0901 by Senator Bo Watson is a case in point. As introduced the legislation prohibits any board under the division of health related boards from issuing or renewing a license to a health care professional or applicant who might engage in direct patient care when that professional or applicant has been convicted of a felony.

Read all about it at the following link:

There has to be some understanding by politicians of the difference between a "FELON" and a felony offense. There is Charles Manson, a "FELON" and there is Martha Stewart who committed a felony offense. Of course, the one should be put away forever but the other......... Is there a real threat here?

These two Tennessee politicos are, like so many other "tough on crime" proponents, only looking at the benefit to their own political careers. They make no distinction between a violent and non-violent offense and pay no heed to the damage being done to those ex-offenders and their families who only want, and deserve, a chance to put their lives back in order.

The fiscal impact statement section of the legislation makes the outrageous statement that the fiscal impact of the bill is "Not Significant". Perhaps not to the immediate loss of revenue to Tennessee but what about the loss of the ability to make a living and support a family. What about the future expense to Tennessee if, because of government roadblocks, the ex-offender becomes a welfare recipient or worse commits another crime and is returned to the state prison system? What now of the fiscal impact?

Rather than placing more roadblocks in the path of ex-offenders, the State of Tennessee and the country would be better served if these representatives would get behind the initiative of Tennessee Congressman Steve Cohen and his "Fresh Start Act". This is common sense legislation that will give federal first time non-violent offenders a real second chance at becoming productive taxpaying citizens. The legislation would also provide incentives to the individual states to follow the same course.

Anonymous said...

Grits I think it is interesting that the exact opposite problem with recidivism rates exists for juvenile justice. While many low level offenders are in the adult system, many of the youth placed in the juvenile justice system in Texas would automatically be placed in the adult system in most states. Those youth are more likely to continue to get in trouble and increase the recidivism rate of TYC as compared to other states.

Anonymous said...

I am also confused by this argument. My understanding is that prison is criminogenic: so, the more sentences one serves, the more likely one is to re-offend. On this basis, incarcerating larger percentages of the population through increasing the use of incarceration among non-dangerous offenders, would not decrease recidivism (in the long run).

However, I agree with you that recidivism rates are no measure of the negative social impacts of mass incarceration - having conducted an ethnographic study of re-entering ex-prisoners I can say that official recidivism rates (usually measured by either re-arrest or re-incarceration) are actually only really measuring detection rates rather than reoffending rates. So - many people in my study were reoffending but were never detected, so do would not form part of official re-offending stats.

Perhaps, on that logic, what this study shows is that Texas are locking a lot of people up, letting a lot of people out, and then not catching many of them again when they commit new crimes!