New report paints mixed picture of recidivism in Pa. prisons | Thursday Morning Coffee

Most people who are released from state custody return within three years; officials stress progress 

By: - September 1, 2022 7:13 am

A new report paints a mixed picture of the commonwealth’s efforts to combat recidivism among people released from Pennsylvania’s state prisons, with officials stressing the incremental progress that’s been made to prevent people from returning to state custody.

Pennsylvania’s recidivism rate, or the percentage of people who are rearrested or return to prison, has held steady for the last 15 years, according to new state Department of Corrections data released Wednesday. About two-thirds of people released from a state prison are either rearrested, or are re-incarcerated, within three years of their release.

Right now, recidivism among those released from state custody costs the taxpayers about $3.1 billion a year, the Corrections Department said in a statement. But even a 5 percent reduction would save the agency about $1.9 million a year.

The new report is an update of a 2013 report that looked at data from 2008. That year, the state’s recidivism rate was 62 percent. In the new report, the rate ticked upward slightly to 64 percent.

But officials were quick to stress that “looking at recidivism only in terms of re-arrest or re-incarceration is like measuring school performance solely by the drop-out rate.”

“Rehabilitation is not always a straight line, and researchers are beginning to acknowledge the benefits of incremental progress,” Bret Bucklen, the director of the Corrections Department’s Bureau of Planning, Research and Statistics, said in a statement.

(Pennsylvania Dept. of Corrections, screen capture)
(Pennsylvania Dept. of Corrections, screen capture)

Among the report’s findings:

  • “Recidivism rates have steadily decreased for Black people but have increased significantly for white people. The latest estimates now show a roughly equal recidivism rate for blacks and whites.
  • “Recidivism rates are higher for those: 1) with a diagnosis of substance use disorder, especially for opiates, 2) with a mental health problem, 3) assessed as high risk, 4) with lower educational attainment, 5) with a more extensive criminal history, 6) who commit more in-prison misconduct, and 7) who receive less in-prison visits.
  • “Longer lengths of stay in prison are generally associated with lower recidivism rates.
  • “Property crime offenders have the highest recidivism rates. Sex offenders have the lowest recidivism rates,”
  • “More than half (54 percent) of parolees re-incarcerated within three years of release are re-incarcerated for a technical parole violation,” and
  • “Pennsylvania’s recidivism ranking varies depending on the specific definition of recidivism, but in general is lower than national averages and lower than many other jurisdictions,” researchers found.
(Source: Pa. Corrections Department)
(Source: Pa. Corrections Department)

Officials said the new report employs a metric known as “desistance,” which measures success after incarceration rather than failure. They add that it’s “a concept gaining ground in academic circles, and a recent national report [pointing] to limitations of recidivism as a stand-alone metric used by correctional agencies.”

(Source: Pa. Corrections Department)
(Source: Pa. Corrections Department)

According to the Corrections Department the new report includes three measures of desistance from crime: “Deceleration (slowing the rate of offending), de-escalation (reducing the seriousness of offenses), and cessation (the stopping of offending altogether).”

Nine out of 10 reentrants “meet one or more of these measures after release from prison,” researchers found.

(Source: Pa. Corrections Department)
County recidivism rates. (Source: Pa. Corrections Department)

“Additionally, in response to critiques that traditional measures inflate the recidivism rate through over-representation of high-risk, repeat offenders, the report also examines the data in a way that corrects for the disproportionate impact of a relatively small number of repeat recidivists,” the report’s authors wrote. “Using the adjusted figures, the DOC’s three-year recidivism rate drops from approximately two-thirds to about 50 percent.”

The report also gauges the success of the state’s various efforts to reduce recidivism, such as intermediate punishment, which has the most impact, and medication-assisted treatment, which had “no impact,” the report shows.

“Reducing recidivism, preventing criminal activity, and keeping people out of prison are objectives that everyone can agree on,” acting Corrections Secretary George Little said in the agency’s statement. “The DOC is publishing this report in the interest of transparency and collaboration, as we work toward building safer communities.”

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.