State of Recidivism

The Revolving Door of America's Prisons

Quick Summary

More than four in ten offenders nationwide return to state prison within three years of their release despite a massive increase in state spending on prisons, according to this 2011 report.

States today spend more than $50 billion a year on corrections, yet recidivism rates remain stubbornly high.

As the slumping economy forces states to do more with less, policy makers are looking for a better public safety return on their corrections dollars.While overall figures are discouraging, the report highlights the strategies that three states—Michigan, Missouri and Oregon—have employed to reduce returns to prison.

  Key Findings 

  • More than four in 10 offenders returned to state prison within three years of their release.

  • The three year recidivism rate for inmates released in 1999 was 45.4 percent and 43.3 percent for those released in 2004.

  • A comparison of the states included in the most recent national studies reveals recidivism rates have been largely stable for well over a decade.

  • Recidivism rates vary widely among the states and there are a number of potential explanations for the differences.

  • Of the 33 states that reported data for both 1999 and 2004 releases, recidivism rates fell in 17 states and climbed in 15 states, while one state reported no change.
    Kansas, Oregon and Utah led the country in declining returns to prison, with Oregon reporting the steepest drop of 31.9 percent.

  • The number of ex-offenders returning for a new crime ranged from 44.7 in Alaska to 4.7 in Montana. Ex-offenders returning for a technical violation of parole ranged from 40.3 percent in Missouri to 0 percent in Arkansas, where offenders are sent to technical violator programs instead of being sent back to prison.

  • A state’s recidivism rate is the product of numerous variables and valid interstate assessments require careful analysis of the underlying conditions affecting each state, therefore, readers are advised to use caution when comparing recidivism rates across states and should focus on differences within states over time, and probe for reasons why one state’s recidivism rate might be higher than its neighbors’ rather than make judgments about the performance of its corrections agencies based on this single indicator.

  • If states could reduce their recidivism rates by just 10 percent, they could save more than $635 million combined in one year alone in averted prison costs.

  • In fact, if just the 10 states with the greatest potential cost savings reduced their recidivism rates by 10 percent, they could save more than $470 million in a single year. These include Alaska, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas.

  • To cut reoffending and corrections costs, states are taking thoughtful and concerted steps to put research on what works into practice.

  • Recidivism reduction strategies that can reduce crime and cut corrections costs include:
    • Defining Success as Recidivism Reduction and Measure and Reward Progress
    • Beginning Preparation for Release at Time of Prison Admission
    • Optimizing Use of Supervision Resources
    • Imposing Swift and Certain Sanctions
    • Creating Incentives for Offenders to Succeed
    • State successes including Michigan, Missouri and Oregon illuminate strategies that can help cut reoffending and corrections costs.
    • The largest reductions in recidivism are realized when evidence-based programs and practices are implemented in prisons and govern the supervision of probationers and parolees in the community post-release.
 [i] See discussion of evidence-based practices in Pew Center on the States, Public Safety Performance Project, Policy Framework to Strengthen Community Corrections (Washington, DC, December 2008).

Report Assets

Reducing recidivism Video
Reducing Recidivism

States can break this cycle of recidivism and save money by implementing evidence-based programs and policies.

PEW_Gelb_230x130_km_OWN Expert
Pew Expert: Adam Gelb

"Policies aimed at reducing recidivism offer perhaps the ripest opportunities for achieving the twin goals of less crime and lower costs."

April 11, 2011
Jennifer Laudano | 202.540.6321
Public Safety Performance Project
Recidivism, Corrections Costs