State Prisoners Often Return, Report Shows


State prisons have a revolving door, according to a report based on the largest study ever conducted of the relapse into criminal behavior in the United States.

Sixty-seven percent of former inmates released from state prison in 1994 were charged with at least one serious new crime within the following three years, the U.S. Justice Department report shows.

The study issued tracked 272,111 former inmates after their release from prisons in 15 states--- Arizona, California, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, and Virginia. It was released on Sunday, June 2.

About 47 percent of prisoners released in 1994 were convicted of a new crime, and 52 percent returned to prison or jail.

An earlier study, involving inmates released in 1983 in 11 states, showed a slightly lower re-arrest rate, the same rate of reconviction, and a lower rate of re-incarceration.

Experts were divided on whether things are getting worse or better.

"Most people look at these numbers and say, well isn't that horrible. But I look at it another way and say, sure, they're getting re-arrested but they're not being arrested for nearly as severe a crime," said James Austin, director of George Washington University's Institute on Crime, Justice, and Corrections.

Austin also said any study of recidivism (the relapse into criminal behavior) that includes California, as the new federal report does, would have its results skewed by its higher rates of recidivism.

"To really understand what the other states are doing, you have to pull California out and that would lower the failure rate," Austin said.

The figures are aimed at helping policymakers who are searching for ways to lower the state prison population. States such as Connecticut have seen persistent problems with prison crowding despite a 10-year decline in arrest and crime rates, and officials have pointed to recidivism as the reason.

A Connecticut study released last year showed almost half of the inmates released in 1997returned to prison within three years.

The new federal report's evidence was mixed on whether serving more time reduces recidivism.

Legal experts will use the study to measure whether tough-on-crime policies such as three strikes, mandatory drug sentencing, and no-parole policies deter inmates from committing more crimes.

Joan Petersilia, professor of criminology at the University of California, Irvine, said the tough-on-crime laws haven't worked.

Petersilia told in an e-mail, "This data shows unequivocally that hasn't happened: in fact, recidivism rates (as measured by new arrests) are actually higher after a decade of getting tough' than they were in the 1980s when supposedly, we were so lenient.'"

Nearly 600,000 people are released from incarceration yearly and arrive on the doorsteps of communities nationwide.

Jeremy Travis, senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a social policy think tank, and former director of the Justice Department's National Institute of Justice, said the report shows states must still focus on behavior when prisoners come back to the community, particularly in the early months after their release.

States are about to get $100 million from the federal government to do just that.

This month the federal government will begin awarding grants to states as part of the Offender Reentry Initiative, a national effort to improve inmates' chances of avoiding prison after release. Under the initiative, state corrections and parole agencies, local workforce development agencies and treatment providers, community groups, and police organizations will devise collaborative plans for helping prisoners adapt to life in the community.

Other findings of the study included:

  • Men were more likely to be re-arrested (68 percent) than women (57 percent). Blacks (73 percent) were more likely to be rearrested than whites (63 percent).
  • Over 80 percent of those under age 18 were re-arrested, compared to 45.3 percent of those 45 or older.
  • State prisoners with the highest re-arrest rates were those jailed for stealing cars (70 percent), possessing stolen property (77 percent), larceny (75 percent), burglary (74 percent), robbery (70 percent), or those possessing illegal weapons (70 percent).
  • Nearly 8 percent of all released prisoners crossed state lines and were re-arrested. New York, Arizona, and California had the most arrests of out-of-state offenders in the study.

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