I wrote about prison reform in the US two weeks ago in a post that focused on life imprisonment for crimes committed when offenders were 14 years old or younger. In that post, I referenced a paper from the JFA Institute that makes a case for much broader prison reforms, arguing that recidivism rates are lower than the general public believes, and arguing that a comprehensive approach to prison reform, including shorter sentences and less post-release supervision is a good strategy for shrinking US prison populations.
One of the most striking statistics in the JFA paper is the assertion that, according to a referenced study, only 1% of new violent crimes are committed by released prisoners. My friend Nathan Kurz found that statistic odd and downloaded and read the study footnoted as the source for that stat, a 2002 Department of Justice study titled, “Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994”. That study comes to a very different conclusion: that recidivism of released prisoners is a major factor in crime.
Nate looks closely at the apparent disconnect between the conclusions of the DOJ study and the JFA study and observes that, “…using a report showing that 47% of the released prisoners studied were reconvicted for a new crime within three years as evidence that ‘rates of return to serious crime are not high’ seems at best disingenuous. Maybe one of the authors of the report could offer a more charitable interpretation…”
Maybe. I’m hoping to forward this question to some of the reports’ authors with links to his and my posts on the paper. The JFA paper has gotten some media attention in the past few weeks, and is authored by a number of respected academics. It’s hard to believe that they’d simply misquote a report’s conclusions. My hope is that, instead, they’re doing a different interpretation of the data set used in the DOJ paper… but if that’s the case, it should be made much clearer in the JFA document.
I’m a firm believer that there needs to be major reconsideration of how the US incarcerates prisoners, and I’d very much like to believe JFA’s assertion that recidivism is very rarely a problem. But having numbers you agree with is less important than having correct numbers… in this case, I don’t know enough about prison reform to know whether the DOJ report should be taken at face value (it’s clearly written with a very strong pro-incarceration agenda), whether there’s been work on reinterpreting its findings, and how JFA is drawing conclusions from those numbers. Anyone who’s knowledgeable in this field, please weigh in and set me (and Nate) on the right path.