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Recidivism: A Fruit Salad Concept in the Criminal Justice World

NCJ Number
Allen R. Beck Ph.D.
Date Published
May 2001
3 pages
This document examines what counts as recidivism, what the time frame is, and what the basis is for making sense of the information on recidivism.
Recidivism and failure are not always synonymous when discussing offender programs. Recidivism is defined as a tendency to slip back into a previous criminal behavior pattern. Failure is a broad term that often encompasses both relapse into criminal behavior and the exhibition of non-criminal behavior that is unacceptable in correctional programs. In some communities, recidivism includes new offenses (including misdemeanors) to which the offender is sentenced to serve local time even though he or she does not return to State correctional supervision. If a revocation of parole involves a chargeable behavior, the incident may not be considered recidivism in some communities. If a parolee commits a new offense in some communities that carries a shorter sentence to prison than would be served if parole is revoked, than the judge may choose to revoke parole. The parolee is not counted as having committed a new offense, and as such it is not counted as recidivism. Some State prison systems either do not count or do not track parolees that commit new offenses in another State and are incarcerated out-of-state. The time frame for counting recidivism in the various State prison systems extends from 1 to 22 years after release from prison. The longer the time frame, the more offenders that will be included in the recidivism count. In some jurisdictions, the date of commission of the new offense signals the time to take the count while in others, the date of conviction is used. In some correctional programs, recidivism is counted only for those persons that commit new offenses or violate orders of the court during time of participation in the program, not afterwards. Interpretation of recidivism data requires making comparisons. Comparisons to other programs must be made. But how the comparison is made is crucial and often misleading. Without keeping these three concepts in mind, recidivism information will not be useful in knowledgeable decisionmaking.