Recidivism is when someone who has been convicted of a crime commits another crime thereafter. Punishment for an offense is one way to lower the risk of future criminal behavior. But there are many other ways to determine if someone is likely to recidivate.
Impact of Education and Employment
A person’s educational history can lower their risk of re-offense. Studies have found that individuals with less education had higher rates of recidivism. Specifically, those with less than a ninth grade education recidivate at higher rates than those who completed education beyond that.
When it comes to college degrees, this can also be a predictor of risk. Those who obtain an associate’s degree recidivate at a rate of 13.7%. Yet it is only 5.6% for those who obtain a bachelor’s degree. As for prison education programs, one study found that there is a 43% lower recidivism rate for those who participate. In New Jersey, a program affiliated with Rutgers University found that only 5.3% of students in their program commit another offense. This is compared with the state’s average of 53% recidivism.
Employment can also lower risk. Those who have been unemployed or not regularly employed recidivate at higher rates than those who have experienced stable employment. Moreover, those who are economically marginalized are more likely to experience multiple contacts with the criminal legal system.
Juvenile Risk of Re-Offense
Research shows that adolescence is a period marked by heightened involvement in peer groups. Youths also have diminished impulse control. Additionally, juveniles are highly likely to be solicited to participate in criminal behavior among peers. For many reasons, the idea of the juvenile “superpredator” was pervasive in the 1990s. Yet social science has since dispelled this myth.
We now know that criminal involvement as a youth is not on its own an indication of increased risk of crime as an adult. Research has shown that increased age is one of the best predictors of a lower risk of re-offense. An individual has more impulse control, has better reasoning skills, and is less influenced by a situation or the actions of others.
Risk of Sexual Re-Offense
In a Supreme Court decision in 2002, one justice wrote that the recidivism rate “of untreated [sexual] offenders has been estimated to be as high as 80%.” The so-called “frightening and high” recidivism rate of those convicted of sex offenses is used to justify many of the conditions imposed upon them, including sex offender registration schemes.
Yet that statistic cited by the Supreme Court traces back to an article published in 1986 in Psychology Today. That article was written to a lay audience by a counselor (not a researcher) who had no evidence to back up that claim. The author further made that claim to tout the success of his own treatment program.
The reality is that the documented risk of re-offense in this population is lower than most of those who commit other types of offenses. Predictors of a lower risk for those who have commit sex offenses are similar to those who commit other offenses. Other factors include, for example, the time living offense-free in the community. Specifically, the likelihood of sexual recidivism declines the longer an individual remains sex offense-free in the community. Another important factor is age; there is a strong negative correlation between sexual recidivism and age
- National Institute of Justice, Desistance From Crime: Implications for Research, Policy, and Practice, U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs (Nov. 2021); available at: https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/301497.pdf (last accessed Nov. 10, 2021).
- Bureau of Justice Statistics, Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 24 States in 2008: A 10-Year Follow-Up Period (2008-2018), U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs (Sept. 2021); available at: https://bjs.ojp.gov/BJS_PUB/rpr24s0810yfup0818/Web%20content/508%20compliant%20PDFs (last accessed Nov. 10, 2021).
- Ira Ellman and Tara Ellman, “‘Frightening and High:’ The Supreme Court’s Crucial Mistake About Sex Crime Statistics,” 30 Constitutional Commentary 495-508 (2015); available at: https://scholarship.law.umn.edu/concomm/419 (last accessed Nov. 10, 2021).