Will Virginia’s Real Recidivism Rate Please Stand Up?


In previous posts I have made much of the 23.4% recidivism rate from Virginia prisons. That’s the lowest — hence, the best — rate of all the 45 states that keep track. I’ve always construed the number as a fact that Virginians can be proud of. I have touted it as evidence that Virginia’s Department of Corrections was doing something right, and that, whatever it was, we should be doing more of it.

I should have known better. It turns out that there are many definitions of “recidivism.” And it’s not clear that Virginia is using the same definition as other states. We should hold off patting ourselves on the back until we’re certain that we’re comparing apples to apples.

Kudos to Jeff Schwaner with Staunton’s News Leader, who has dug into the numbers.

Update: Dick Hall-Sizemore, an expert in correctional issues, offers his own take on the numbers here in the comments.

One definition of recidivism is when someone is released from prison and gets arrested for a new crime… Another is when the felon violates terms of his probation…. another is when he gets convicted of a new crime… Or maybe for being sentenced for a crime, but only if the sentence exceeds a certain minimum. Another critical part of the definition is how many months or years after a felon is released from prison that is being counted. A year? Two years? Three? Longer? The longer the period counted, the greater the odds that a given felon will commit another crime.

The Commonwealth tracks prisoners convicted of offenses with a sentence of at least a year, and deems them recidivists if they have been convicted and sentenced again within three years. Not counted in the numbers:

  • those arrested for probation violations but who are sentenced to any time less than a year;
  • those arrested for misdemeanors with sentences less than a year;
  • those arrested for any crime but who have not yet been convicted;
  • those arrested and convicted for a crime but not sentenced to a year or more in prison before the end of their first three years after release; or
  • those who plea down to a lesser charge with no prison time or incarceration time of less than a year.

Concludes Schwaner: “Here’s a much simpler, and perhaps more realistic, recidivism number: 69%. The News Leader counted the number of inmates in jail on a random day in 2017 who were facing charges that indicated they’d already had prior convictions.”

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6 responses to “Will Virginia’s Real Recidivism Rate Please Stand Up?

  1. Sigh! Recidivism was going to be my next major post, but the Staunton News Leader beat me to it. However, the article is somewhat confusing and misleading in places. As with any data, once one digs beneath the surface, it can get confusing, and recidivism is no exception.

    When dealing with Virginia criminal justice data, there are two basic terms that need to be understood:
    • State responsible—any offender convicted of a felony and given an active sentence of more than 12 months. These are the folks that DOC can transfer from local or regional jails to state-run facilities, if there is room.
    • Local responsible—any offender (a) convicted of a misdemeanor (maximum sentence of 12 months, (b) convicted of a felony with a sentence of less than 12 months, or (c) any person incarcerated in jail awaiting trial. These folks will remain in jail and not be transferred to DOC.

    When measuring recidivism, one needs to define what constitutes recidivism—re-arrest, reconviction, or re-incarceration. Also, there needs to be a time frame within which that event occurs; otherwise, a study could go on for a very long time. Criminologists seem to have reached a consensus of three years from the time of release as the period within which to measure recidivism. Research has shown that, if a person is going to commit another crime after being released from incarceration, he/she will do so within a relatively short time after being released. As time passes, the likelihood of re-offending decreases. After about three years, the likelihood has reached its lowest level.

    As for the three events, I have always preferred reconviction. Re-arrest is not legitimate because an arrest does not mean someone is guilty of an offense and law enforcement may sometimes be tempted to arrest those with a prior record. Re-incarceration is not the best measure because an incarceration does not always accompany a conviction. An ex-offender could be arrested for a minor offense, convicted, and released on probation, for example. Although that offender was not incarcerated, he/she did re-offend. Re-incarceration is the most narrow of the measures and DOC narrows it even further. It defines a recidivist as one who was released from a DOC facility and is re-incarcerated as a state-responsible offender within three years. Therefore, one could be released from a state correctional facility, be convicted of misdemeanor assault and battery, and sentenced to jail for nine months (local responsible) and not show up as a recidivist in DOC’s analysis.

    DOC uses the three-year, state responsible re-incarceration recidivism rate in order to make an apples –to- apples comparison with other states. This is the method that is the most widely used by other states. It does not hurt that this rate is the one that makes it look the best. It also calculates re-conviction and re-arrest rates, but does not publish them.

    As for the 69% number cited in the Staunton News Leader article, that is wildly misleading. The reporter counted everyone in the jail on a single day and looked at how many had a prior conviction. That included people who were awaiting trial, who may have been convicted of a prior offense, but had not been convicted of the current charge; people convicted of misdemeanors; people charged with a probation violation(state or local, and there is a difference) and waiting a hearing; and persons convicted of a felony, with a prior misdemeanor conviction. Not only was he mixing the recidivism of local and state responsible offenders (two very different populations) together, he was including people who had prior convictions, but who did not yet have current convictions and, therefore, may not have been recidivists at all.

    As I have learned after many years, criminal justice data can be tricky and one needs to approach it with care.

  2. Helpful, Dick, thanks. The reporter’s whole premise was wrong, starting with the jail population and looking at their records. He’s using the wrong denominator and numerator….

  3. This story on the recidivism data is one of a series of stories about the difficulties faced by people caught up in jail due to drug problems. Although this one story conflates state recidivism data for state responsible offenders with the records of local responsible inmates in jail (they are different populations), the other stories are good. Using the stories of several offenders who agreed to talk to the reporter and interviews with local probation and pretrial officers, they describe the several programs in the state that are designed to divert non-violent offenders from the jails or to provide treatment/rehabilitation for the offenders who are sentenced to serve time.

  4. Dick – thanks for shedding some light on a complicated issue. Focusing on reconviction of some offense within three years of release seems to be a good starting point for measurement. And I also think that attempting to divert people with mental illness and who are arrested for non-violent offenses to treatment before the criminal justice process begins generally makes sense.

  5. Virginia Prisons Accountability Committee

    Everyone may want to listen to another side of the coin, Yeah a real prisoner, we at Virginia Prisons Accountability Committee are submitting his comment as it pertains to “Virginia and Recidivism”: Brian Moran and The Indefensible Red Onion State Prison By William Thorpe http://bit.ly/2JS90C8

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