The Limits of
MEASURING SUCCESS AFTER PRISON
Committee on Evaluating Success Among People Released from Prison
Richard Rosenfeld and Amanda Grigg, Editors
Committee on Law and Justice
Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education
A Consensus Study Report of
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This activity was supported by contracts between the National Academy of Sciences and the Arnold Foundation (19-02953). Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for the project.
International Standard Book Number-13: 978-0-309-27697-9
International Standard Book Number-10: 0-309-27697-7
Digital Object Identifier: https://doi.org/10.17226/26459
Library of Congress Control Number: 2022942477
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Suggested citation: National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. The Limits of Recidivism: Measuring Success After Prison. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/26459.
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COMMITTEE ON EVALUATING SUCCESS AMONG PEOPLE RELEASED FROM PRISON
RICHARD ROSENFELD (Chair), University of Missouri–St. Louis
ROBERT APEL, Rutgers University, Newark
ELSA CHEN, Santa Clara University
JENNIFER COBBINA-DUNGY, Michigan State University
RONALD F. DAY, The Fortune Society
DEANNA HOSKINS, JustLeadershipUSA
CECELIA KLINGELE, University of Wisconsin Law School
WILLIAM J. SABOL, Georgia State University
FAYE S. TAXMAN, George Mason University
CHRISTOPHER UGGEN, University of Minnesota
CHRISTY A. VISHER, University of Delaware
EMILY WANG, Yale School of Medicine
AMANDA GRIGG, Study Director
ELLIE GRIMES, Research Associate
BRIANA SMITH, Senior Program Assistant
EMILY P. BACKES, Associate Director, Committee on Law and Justice
COMMITTEE ON LAW AND JUSTICE
ROBERT D. CRUTCHFIELD (Chair), University of Washington (retired)
SALLY S. SIMPSON (Vice Chair), University of Maryland
ROD K. BRUNSON, Northeastern University
SHAWN D. BUSHWAY, University at Albany
PREETI CHAUHAN, John Jay College of Criminal Justice
KIMBERLE W. CRENSHAW, University of California, Los Angeles
MARK S. JOHNSON, Howard University
CYNTHIA LUM, George Mason University
JOHN M. MACDONALD, University of Pennsylvania
KAREN J. MATHIS, American Bar Association (retired), University of Denver
THE HONORABLE THEODORE A. MCKEE, United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit Philadelphia, PA
SAMUEL L. MYERS, JR, University of Minnesota
EMILY OWENS, University of California, Irvine
CYNTHIA RUDIN, Duke University
WILLIAM J. SABOL, Georgia State University
LINDA A. TEPLIN, Northwestern University Medical School
NATACHA BLAIN, Board Director
EMILY P. BACKES, Deputy Board Director
|ADI||Area Deprivation Index|
|BJS||Bureau of Labor Statistics|
|EMA||Ecological Momentary Assessment|
|GED||General Educational Development|
|MOS||Medical Outcomes Study|
|NCRP||National Corrections Reporting Program|
|NCSC||National Center for State Courts|
|NCVS||National Crime Victimization Survey|
|NIBRS||National Incident-Based Reporting System|
|NICS||National Instant Criminal Background Check System|
|NODS||National Open Court Data Standards|
|NSDUH||National Survey on Drug Use and Health|
|PHQ-9||Patient Health Survey-9|
|PTSD||Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder|
|SAMHSA||Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration|
|SNAP||Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program|
|TANF||Temporary Assistance for Needy Families|
|UCR||Uniform Crime Reporting|
|USSC||United States Sentencing Commission|
The recidivism rate is a statistical institution in the criminal legal system. It is widely used by policymakers, practitioners, and researchers to refer to the crimes, convictions, and reincarceration of people released from prison. It is the default benchmark for determining the effectiveness of policies and programs to prevent post-release criminal behavior. From the beginning, however, the recidivism rate has had its critics, who argue that it is based on defective data and is commonly misinterpreted and misapplied.1 Arnold Ventures asked the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to convene an expert committee to conduct a critical analysis of recidivism and, as needed, propose alternative measures of success for the more than 600,000 persons who reenter society each year after leaving prison. This report is the culmination of the committee’s deliberations.
The use of the term “success” in the committee’s charge is telling. It reverses the focus on failure that defines the recidivism rate. The committee was asked to consider the multiple meanings and measures of success after prison in addition to the cessation of criminal behavior. We took this charge literally and have devoted extensive attention in our report to measures of post-release progress and improvement across multiple life domains, including physical and mental health, employment, housing, family attachment and community involvement. Our research and presentations by subject matter experts—particularly those by persons with lived experience of incarceration and the practitioners who work with them—convinced us that a sense of hope, efficacy, and overall well-being is of fundamental importance for successful reentry after prison. The challenge is to develop and validate measures of
1 See, for example, Michael Maltz’s ( 2001) groundbreaking study.
personal well-being that are both reliable and sufficiently flexible to encompass the diverse experiences, backgrounds, and identities of those leaving prison.
Our analysis of recidivism also poses the same kind of challenge. The recidivism critics, we concluded, are essentially correct: We must move beyond the recidivism rate to adequately measure post-release criminal behavior, which will require reversing the polarity of recidivism from failure to success. In this regard, the committee undertook an extensive review of the research literature on desistance from crime. We were struck by the difference between recidivism and desistance. Recidivism is often operationalized as a binary, either-or, measure of post-release outcomes: You were either rearrested, reconvicted, or reincarcerated after leaving prison, or you were not. By contrast, desistance indicates a gradual process that, like recovery from addiction, illness or disease, can involve relapses. From the vantage point of recidivism, committing a new crime is a mark of failure. From a desistance perspective, committing fewer or less serious crimes is a sign of movement toward desistance. Our review led us to conclude that the concept of desistance more accurately depicts the realities of criminal behavior and its cessation and that measures of desistance should augment the recidivism rate. Measures of recidivism, when used, need to be applied with greater precision. Policymakers, practitioners, researchers, and other users should specify whether recidivism reflects rearrest, conviction, or incarceration and clarify the limitations of such measures.
Little in our analysis of the limitations the recidivism rate is new. Part of our task was to review and draw conclusions from the quite extensive literature on recidivism. We were also charged, however, with formulating recommendations based on our conclusions. In this respect, we broke some new ground. We do not propose that our conclusions about measuring recidivism or the correlates of successful reentry be taken as the last word on these demanding topics. On the contrary, we recommend that foundations and federal agencies use them as points of departure for extensive evaluation of the kinds and quality of the data underlying current recidivism measures and the development of uniform standards for measuring desistance from crime and successful reentry in life domains including but not limited to the criminal legal system.
We recognize that this is a tall order and that, even if our recommendations are taken up by private and government stakeholders, it may be years before they issue their own findings and recommendations. Therefore, the question arises: What is to be done in the meantime? We urge that everyone who cares about what happens to the people who pass through the nation’s prisons and reads this report ask themselves the same questions we did as we were writing it: Do current measures of recidivism tell us what we need to know about success after prison? How can we do better?
Richard Rosenfeld, Chair
Committee on Evaluating Success
Among People Released from Prison
This report was made possible by the contributions of many people. First, we thank the study’s sponsor Arnold Ventures, for requesting and supporting this endeavor. We particularly thank Jeremy Travis (Executive Vice President of Criminal Justice) and Jocelyn Fontaine (Vice President of Criminal Justice Research).
Special thanks go to the members of the study committee, who dedicated extensive time, thought, energy, and good humor to the project on such a compressed timeline. In addition to its own research and deliberations, the committee received input from several outside sources, whose willingness to share their perspectives and expertise was essential to the committee’s work. We thank Susan Burton (A New Way of Life Reentry Center), George Braucht (Brauchtworks), Kenneth Cooper (Game Changers Reentry Program), Jai Diamond (New York Criminal City Justice Agency), Jennifer Doleac (Texas A&M University), Jerry Flores (University of Toronto), Adam Gelb (Council on Criminal Justice), Peggy Giordano (Bowling Green State University), Diana Good Collins (Metropolitan Community College), Nneka Jones Tapia (Chicago Beyond), Lila Kazemian (City University of New York), Pamela Lattimore (RTI International), Andrea Leverentz (University of Massachusetts, Boston), Sam Lewis (Anti-Recidivism Coalition), Charles Loeffler (University of Pennsylvania), Shadd Maruna (Queen’s University, Belfast), Reuben Miller (University of Chicago), Merry Morash (Michigan State University), Daniel Nagin (Carnegie Mellon University), Kara Nelson (True North Recovery), Lisa Puglisi (Yale School of Medicine), William Rhodes, Walter Strauss (New York City Housing Court-retired), Dana Rice (University of North Carolina), John Valverde
(Youthbuild USA), Venus Woods (Cook Inlet Tribal Council), Caryn York (Job Opportunities Task Force).
The committee was also able to gather input from correctional officials and service providers for crime victims and survivors. We extend our gratitude to David Edwards (Missouri Department of Corrections, Department of Planning), Michelle Garcia (DC Office of Victims Services and Justice Grants), Travis Gramble (Multnomah County DCJ Gang Unit and African American Program), Sarah Ohlsen (National Center for Victims of Crime), Alejandro Palacio (National Organization for Victim Assistance), Anne Precythe (Missouri Department of Corrections), Erika Preuitt (Multnomah County Department of Community Justice), Katie Roller (Multnomah County DCJ, Women and Family Services Unit), Bryan Smith (Multnomah County DCJ, Alternative Incarceration Program and Short Term Transitional Leave Program), Bridgette Stumpf (National Network for Victim Recovery D.C.), Glenn Tapia (Colorado Probation Agency), Heather Warnken (Center for Criminal Justice Reform), and Heidi Washington (Michigan Department of Corrections).
The committee also gathered information through a commissioned paper. We thank Lila Kazemian (John Jay College of Criminal Justice) for her contributions to this report and for her willingness to work on an abbreviated timeline. Tyler Harvey (Yale University) contributed valuable research support for Chapters 3 and 4. Finally, we thank John Laub (The University of Maryland) for sharing his enthusiasm and expertise with the committee, and for offering commentary on a report draft.
We also extend our gratitude to the staff of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Briana Smith provided key administrative and logistical support to ensure that the committee process ran efficiently, as well as providing essential support in preparing the report for publication. Ellie Grimes made critical substantive contributions to the committee’s information gathering and literature review. Emily Backes provided guidance at every stage of the study process, along with contributing to the writing and editing of the report. Throughout the project, Natacha Blain, director of the Committee on Law and Justice, provided oversight. From the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, we thank Kirsten Sampson Snyder and Douglas Sprunger, who expertly shepherded the report through the review process and assisted with its communication and dissemination. We thank librarian Anne Marie Houppert in the National Academies Research Center for her crucial assistance with fact-checking. We also thank Marc DeFrancis for his skillful editing.
This Consensus Study Report was reviewed in draft form by individuals chosen for their diverse perspectives and technical expertise. The purpose of this independent review is to provide candid and critical comments that will assist the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering,
and Medicine in making each published report as sound as possible and to ensure that it meets the institutional standards for quality, objectivity, evidence, and responsiveness to the study charge. The review comments and draft manuscript remain confidential to protect the integrity of the deliberative process.
We thank the following individuals for their review of this report: Kristofer Bucklen (Planning, Research, and Statistics, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections), Adam Gelb (Office of the President and CEO, Council on Criminal Justice), Beth Huebner (Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Missouri–St. Louis), Michael Jacobson (Institute for State and Local Governance and Sociology Department, CUNY Graduate Center), Pamela Lattimore (Research Development, Division for Applied Justice Research, RTI International), Magnus Lofstrom (Criminal Justice, Public Policy Institute of California), and Giovanni Mastrobuoni (Public and Labor Economics, Collegio Carlo Alberto).
Although the reviewers listed above provided many constructive comments and suggestions, they were not asked to endorse the conclusions or recommendations of this report nor did they see the final draft before its release. The review of this report was overseen by James Lynch, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Maryland and Ellen Wright Clayton, Vanderbilt Law School. They were responsible for making certain that an independent examination of this report was carried out in accordance with the standards of the National Academies and that all review comments were carefully considered. Responsibility for the final content rests entirely with the authoring committee and the National Academies.
Richard Rosenfeld, Chair
Amanda Grigg, Study Director
Committee on Evaluating Success
Among People Released from Prison
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Commonly Used Measures of Recidivism
Recidivism in Bureau of Justice Statistics Reports
Recidivism in Academic Literature
Recidivism in Departments of Corrections Reports
Elements of Recidivism Measures
Samples and Populations of Interest: Event-Based and Person-Based Methods
Data Sources for Measuring Recidivism
Efforts to Improve Administrative Data
Recidivism as Binary: Limitations
3 Beyond Recidivism: Toward a More Comprehensive Understanding of Reentry Challenges and Successes
Theoretical Frameworks for Recidivism and Criminal Offending
Social Attachments and Reentry Stressors
Societal Reintegration and Well-Being
Key Domains of Successful Reintegration
Familial and Social Relationships and Support
Physical Health, Mental Health, and Substance Use
Participation in Peer Support and Help-Giving Roles
Community and Macro-Level Impacts on Reentry Success
Structural Reentry Barriers and the Measurement of Success
4 Measuring Success Beyond Recidivism
The State of the Science: Evidence-Based Rehabilitation and Reentry
New Approaches to Measurement: Contextual Conditions and Data Collection
Methods for Measuring Community and Structural Conditions
New Approaches to Data Collection: Self-Report Data
Alternative Indicators of Success
Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder
Social Relationships: Children, Families, Peer Support
National Standards for Measuring Post-Release Success
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Boxes, Figures, and Tables
1-1 Evaluating Success Among People Released from Prison: Statement of Task
2-1 Listening Session: The Expertise of Individuals with Lived Experience of Incarceration
3-1 Collateral Sanctions of Incarceration
3-2 Correctional Perspectives on Measures of Success
3-3 The Role of Social and Community Support
3-4 The Value of Lived Experience in Reentry Programming
3-5 Slavery and the Origins of the Criminal Legal System
3-6 Perspectives on Reentry: Service Providers for Victims
3-7 Trauma and Barriers to Success
4-1 Listening Session: Partnering with Individuals with Lived Experience in Reentry Research and Programming
4-2 Listening Session: Social Context, Structural Conditions, and Post-Release Success
4-3 Listening Session: Defining Reentry Success, and the Need for Resources
2-1 Annual admissions to, and releases from, state and federal prisons
2-2 Annual percentage of new parole admissions, by type of admission
2-1 Recidivism Estimates for 2012 Prison Release Cohort in 34-State Study
2-2 Five-Year Rearrest Estimates for 2012 Prison Release Cohort in 34-State Study, by Post-Release Offense Type and Commitment Offense
2-3 Illustrating Impact of Type of Sample on Recidivism Rates in 17 States
2-4 Measures Derived from Sources and Strengths and Weaknesses
4-1 Subjective and Objective Measures of Post-Release Success