by Scott Richter and Dr. Patrick Jones
Reforming the criminal justice system is more than a catch phrase and the demand to do so has intensified exponentially with recent high-profile events.
But criminal justice reform is a large umbrella capturing many different areas, including police reform, prison reform, sentencing reform, solitary confinement reform, death penalty reform, and criminal law reform – just to name a few.
In the 1970s and 1980s, sentencing reform was more about establishing mandatory minimum sentences aimed at the creating same punishment for the same conviction with tiered levels of punishment for previous criminal convictions or extenuating circumstances. Three-strike laws (three qualifying convictions = life in prison) are similar in how the punishment is pre-established for specific convictions, or automatically adding 5-years to the sentence of someone convicted of using a firearm in the commission of a felony. The main point of agreement on both sides was mandatory minimum sentences were fair because punishments would be the same and harder for anyone to receive differential treatment.
Almost coming full-circle, sentence reform today would prefer fewer mandatory minimum sentences and more discretion in the hands of judges, so sentencing might be more reflective of each individual case. Additionally, sentence reform today includes continued growth of community sentences (probations, community service), and deferments through drug or mental health courts. A common point of agreement is while punishment still needs to exist, often there are options other than incarceration.
Arguably, it was the reformation of the mental health system in the U.S. in the 1960’s responsible for large-scale deinstitutionalization of mental health facilities and psychiatric wards. This created a situation where many people once treated in these facilities were now more likely to be caught-up in the criminal justice system.
There are many variables and ultimately, they all strive in their own way to reduce crime and keep the community safe. However, one thing almost all people currently incarcerated have in common is they have sentences that will end, and they will be released.
Upon release, it is ultimately the responsibility of individuals to not return to incarceration. Resources during and after incarceration can help, but for those with mental health, substance abuse issues, or no friends or family to help in the transition to freedom, this time can be fraught, with few legitimate opportunities and many paths back to prison.
Recidivism, defined by the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice as “criminal acts that resulted in rearrest, reconviction or return to prison with or without a new sentence during a three-year period following the prisoner's release”, is a major part of how a criminal justice system is graded. Were current goals and processes successful at reducing crime? Has it reduced the re-offense rate of persons with a previous serious criminal conviction?
A report by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics released in 2014 found of all incarcerated persons released from a state prison in 2005, “About two-thirds (67.8%) were arrested for a new crime within 3-years.”
While this share is high, keep in mind two things. The first, recidivism includes a re-arrest and does not require a conviction, or an attempt to prosecute. Second, state prisons, are typically where those convicted and sentenced to a year or more are held (representing the worst of crimes), not to be confused with jails where pre-trial holds (those not qualifying for bail or cannot meet bail financial terms) and those serving sentences of less than a year are held.
The Spokane County recidivism rate by type of original crime, is the share of convicted felons who were released from prison, who had been rearrested, reincarcerated, or reconvicted within 36-months of release. The most recent data available (2015-2017) are those people who completed their sentences and were released from prison in 2015.
This most recent 36-month period (2015-2017) had the highest overall recidivism rate in the series, at 42.1%. A breakdown of the overall rate was:
- 5.2% for drug crimes, the lowest in the series.
- 15.8% for property crimes, the lowest since 2011-2013.
- 8.4% for violent crimes, the lowest since 2009-2011.
- 12.8% for “Other” crimes, the highest in the series.
The “Other” category includes all other felony crimes not in the violent crime category (murder, robbery, rape, aggravated assault), property crime category (larceny / theft, burglary, motor vehicle theft), or drug crimes.
Recidivism data is usually part of evaluating the efficacy of reintegration programs and resources available inside and out of prisons. Understanding what recidivism can and cannot tell us about reoccurring crime should be a part of the overall discussion on criminal justice reform.
Learn more about recidivism and how recidivism is measured from the National Institute of Justice.