Recidivism: The Rest of the Story, Part 3–Who Comes Back to Prison?

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

Prior posts (here and here) discussed the increase in the Commonwealth’s recidivism rate and the possible explanations for that increase. This post, the last in the series, will examine the characteristics of recidivists, or which offenders are most likely to commit new crimes upon their release from prison.

Despite what is depicted in movies and on television, and claimed by some on this blog, offenders who have previously committed violent crimes are not likely to go on violent rampages once they get out of prison. The recidivism rate for violent offenders is lower than that of nonviolent offenders.

Predictors of Recidivism. DOC analyses of its data have shown “a consistent link between certain factors and recidivism.”  The most common predictors are:

  1. Gender—males are more likely than females to recidivate (24.8% vs. 18.0%.)
  2. Age — younger inmates are more likely to recidivate.
  3. Previous state-responsible (SR) incarceration — inmates with a greater number of previous SR incarcerations are more likely to recidivate.
  4. Crime type of most serious offense—as noted above, inmates who have committed nonviolent crimes are more likely to recidivate.

There are other factors that DOC has identified as also being linked to recidivism. One is the location of an offender’s state-responsible incarceration.  As was discussed in one of the earlier posts, SR offenders who served their entire sentence in a jail were more likely to be recommitted to SR incarceration than those who had served even a portion of their sentence in a state prison. The other factors are mental health and opioid use. Inmates with a mental health impairment or a history of opioid use had a higher rate of recidivism than those without such conditions. DOC has extensively parsed the data on these areas, but their findings are too detailed to go into here. For anyone interested, the summaries of these analyses can be found in one of the source documents listed at the end of this article.

Criminal History. The FY 2016 release cohort included 12,551 offenders.   After three years, 23.9% of that group, or about 3,000 individuals, had been re-incarcerated in DOC facilities (or in jails, subject to transfer to a prison). In examining those recidivists in terms of the most serious offense for which they had been imprisoned immediately prior to their release, it is important to keep two factors in mind:

  1. Technical violators — As discussed in one of the earlier posts, 23.8%, or 714, of those recidivists were technical violators, leaving 2,286 who had committed new crimes. The available data is not sufficient to enable me to identify the prior crimes of those technical violators.  Therefore, it is not possible to tell whether technical violators were more likely to have been violent or nonviolent offenders.
  2. New crimes — There is data available on the most recent crimes of recidivists prior to release, but not on the crimes committed by those offenders that led to their re-incarceration. I have asked DOC for that information for a few specified crime types, but not on all 3,000 recidivists. I have not received a response from the agency. Therefore, it is not possible to tell whether a recidivist was re-incarcerated for the same level of crime for which he had been released and no assumption can be made.

DOC includes the following offenses in the violent crime category: murder, manslaughter, abduction, rape/sexual assault, robbery, assault, and weapons. Of the 12,551 release cohort, 3,890 (31%) fell into this category and 832 were re-incarcerated in the three-year period, a 21.4% recividism rate.

Of the remaining 69% (8,661 offenders), 2,163 were re-incarcerated, a 24.97% recidivism rate. DOC breaks the nonviolent crimes into two categories:  property/public order (27% percent recidivism) and drug (21.2% recidivism).

In the violent category, there were 110 murderers released and eight of those recidivated (a 7.3% recidivism rate).  The violent offense with the largest number of releases was assault with 1,449 released and 356 re-incarcerated (24.6%recidivism). That also was the highest recidivism rate in any category.  Those two offenses together accounted for 43.06% of all those who were reincarcerated.

Offenders convicted of burglary/B&E had the highest recidivism rate (29.6% ) in the property/public order category, followed by larceny/fraud (the groups with the largest number of offenders) with a recidivism rate of 28.4%.

In the drug category, 23.9% of those convicted of possession were re-incarcerated, while 19.3% of those previously convicted of drug sales recidivated.

For the details on all the individual offenses, see the attached spreadsheet.

DOC source documents

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7 responses to “Recidivism: The Rest of the Story, Part 3–Who Comes Back to Prison?”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    While there are some differences in the rates between the different kinds of crimes – they’re not that far apart – roughly somewhere between 20 and 30 percent. So no single category seems to have a wildly different rate from the others.

    And the rate or murderers and rapists… I was hoping they would be lower and that the ones that were so inclined to repeat would be determined by the process and only the ones most likely not to re-offend, released.

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      As I stressed, we don’t know what new crime any of the recidivists committed. In fact, about a fourth of them did not commit a new crime at at all, but were technical violators. Therefore, it is possible that one of the murderers came back because of a positive drug test or some other technical violation.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        ah… that went by me… and I suppose they don’t have stats on how many murderers or rapists committed the same crime again?

        Releasing murderers and other felons is problematical politically… and is a potent issue with voters.

        1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
          Dick Hall-Sizemore

          DOC could determine the extent to which violent felons committed violent offenses after they were released, but no such analysis is available publicly. I asked for that information relative to murderers and those convicted of manslaughter, but I have not gotten an answer.

          As for releasing felons, the vast majority of these felons were released because they had finished serving their sentence. Virginia has no parole for anyone convicted of an offense committed after Jan 1, 1995. DOC had no choice in releasing then.

  2. James C. Sherlock Avatar
    James C. Sherlock

    Nice job with this series.

  3. Your series on recidivism has been informative and thought-provoking. Thank you for spending your time and talent on it.

  4. Dick, you’ve done a huge amount of research. Now I want to see what broad conclusions you draw from it. Is the uptick in recidivism a cause for concern? How can DOC improve? How do you findings comport with the larger debate on criminal justice reform?

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