Recidivism Among Federal Offenders: A Comprehensive Overview

Introduction

This report provides a broad overview of key findings from the United States Sentencing Commission’s study of recidivism of federal offenders. The Commission studied offenders who were either released from federal prison after serving a sentence of imprisonment or placed on a term of probation in 2005. Nearly half (49.3%) of such offenders were rearrested within eight years for either a new crime or for some other violation of the condition of their probation or release conditions. This report discusses the Commission’s recidivism research project and provides many additional findings from that project. In the future, the Commission will release additional publications discussing specific topics concerning recidivism of federal offenders.

The United States Sentencing Commission1 began studying recidivism shortly after the enactment of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 (SRA).2 Past studies, together with ongoing multi-year research on this subject, advance the Commission’s mission to conduct research on sentencing issues related to the purposes of sentencing set forth in the SRA.3 Recidivism information is central to three of the primary purposes of punishment as described in the SRA – specific deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation – purposes which focus on prevention of future crimes through correctional intervention.4 Information about recidivism also is relevant to the Commission’s obligation to formulate sentencing policy that “reflect[s], to the extent practicable, advancements in knowledge of human behavior as it relates to the sentencing process.”5

Considerations of recidivism by federal offenders were central to the Commission’s initial work, as it chose to develop the Guidelines Manual’s criminal history provisions in significant part on offenders’ risk of reoffending.6 The Commission’s 2004 report, Measuring Recidivism, served as a “performance review” of the predictive ability of these provisions, i.e., the predictive statistical power of the criminal history measure to reflect subsequent recidivism among federal offenders. That report concluded that these provisions largely succeeded in predicting subsequent risk of reoffending.7 Two additional Commission reports in that same period further investigated federal offender recidivism and reviewed features of the federal sentencing guidelines.8 Two later publications examined recidivism by federal offenders sentenced under the guidelines for child pornography and crack cocaine.9

Recent developments have refocused the Commission’s interest on the recidivism of federal offenders, particularly the recent public attention on the size of the federal prison population and the cost of incarceration.10 Well over 1.5 million offenders have been sentenced under the federal sentencing guidelines since their inception in 1987. In recent years, approximately 80,000 offenders have been sentenced each year for federal felonies and Class A (nonpetty) misdemeanor offenses.11 Nine out of ten of those federal offenders today receive sentences of imprisonment, while one out of ten is sentenced to probation.12 The federal prison population today is slightly under two hundred thousand inmates13 (which is around one-eighth of the total prison and jail population in the United States).14 As these numbers have grown, courts and correctional officials have sought greater information about reoffending. Recidivism information has recently been used in decisions by the Commission to reduce the periods of incarceration established for certain offenders through retroactive application of sentence reductions in the guidelines.15 And changes in the sentencing guidelines at the policy level have a significant effect on the imposition of individual sentences.16 It is in this policy climate that the Commission has begun its multi-year study of recidivism by federal offenders.

The Commission’s current recidivism research substantially expands on the scope of previous Commission recidivism projects. In addition to a different set of offenders – U.S. citizen federal offenders released in 2005 – the current study group (25,431 offenders) is much larger than those in previous Commission studies. A larger study group provides the opportunity to develop statistically useful conclusions about many subgroups of federal offenders, including those sentenced under different provisions in the guidelines. This is the first report on the results of the Commission’s study of the recidivism of the federal offenders released during this time period.

Summary of Key Findings

The key findings of the Commission’s study are:

  • Over an eight year follow-up period, almost one-half of federal offenders released in 2005 (49.3%) were rearrested for a new crime or rearrested for a violation of supervision conditions.

  • Almost one-third (31.7%) of the offenders were also reconvicted, and one-quarter (24.6%) of the offenders were reincarcerated over the same study period.

  • Offenders released from incarceration in 2005 had a rearrest rate of 52.5 percent, while offenders released directly to a probationary sentence had a rearrest rate of 35.1 percent.

  • Of those offenders who recidivated, most did so within the first two years of the eight year follow-up period. The median time to rearrest was 21 months.

  • About one-fourth of those rearrested had an assault rearrest as their most serious charge over the study period. Other common most serious offenses were drug trafficking, larceny, and public order offenses.

  • A federal offender’s criminal history was closely correlated with recidivism rates. Rearrest rates range from 30.2 percent for offenders with zero total criminal history points to 80.1 percent of offenders in the highest Criminal History Category, VI. Each additional criminal history point was generally associated with a greater likelihood of recidivism.

  • A federal offender’s age at time of release into the community was also closely associated with differences in recidivism rates. Offenders released prior to age 21 had the highest rearrest rate, 67.6 percent, while offenders over sixty years old at the time of release had a recidivism rate of 16.0 percent.

  • Other factors, including offense type and educational level, were associated with differing rates of recidivism but less so than age and criminal history

Recidivism Study Offenders

The offenders studied in this project are 25,431 federal offenders who:

  • are citizens;

  • re-entered the community during 2005 after discharging their sentence of incarceration or by commencing a term of probation in 2005;

  • have valid FBI numbers which could be located in criminal history repositories (in at least one state, the District of Columbia, or federal records);

  • are not reported dead, escaped, or detained, and

  • have a pre-sentence investigation report that was submitted to the Commission with a federal sentence that was not vacated

*The full methodology can be found here

Detailed Recidivism Findings

General Recidivism Rates

As mentioned earlier, this report uses three different measures of recidivism—rearrest, reconviction, and reincarceration.

Rearrest

Almost one-half of offenders released in 2005 (49.3%) were rearrested for a new crime or for an alleged violation of the conditions of their supervision over the eight year follow-up period. The median time to rearrest was 21 months, meaning that for one-half of the offenders rearrest occurred in less than two years following their initial release from prison or placement on probation. Among those who recidivated, the median number of rearrest events (events occurring on separate days) was two, but 21.2 percent of recidivist offenders were rearrested five times or more. When considering only the “most serious” offense committed by those who were rearrested, the most serious event that was most prevalent was assault. About one-fourth (23.3%) of those rearrested had an assault rearrest as their most serious charge over the study period. Other common “most serious” offenses were other public order (15.5%), drug trafficking (11.5%), and larceny (7.7%).

Recidivism Table 1

Reconviction

Almost one-third (31.7%) of offenders were reconvicted over the study period. Most offenders who were reconvicted were reconvicted once. The median time to reconviction, as measured from the date of the arrest that led to the reconviction, was 30 months. About one-fourth (23.9%) of those reconvicted had an assault conviction as their most serious charge over the study period. Other common most serious offenses were drug trafficking (13.5%), other public order (8.7%), and larceny (8.5%).

Reincarceration

One-quarter (24.6%) of offenders were reincarcerated over the study period. Most offenders who were reincarcerated were reincarcerated once. The median time to arrest for the offense that led to reincarceration was 29 months. More offenders (23.8%) were reincarcerated for an assault crime as their most serious offense than for any other offense. Other common most serious offenses were drug trafficking (14.5%), other public order (8.4%), and larceny (7.8%).

Comparison to State Prisoners

Compared to a cohort of state prisoners released into the community in 2005 and tracked by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, federal offenders had a lower recidivism rate. BJS found that 76.6 percent of offenders released from state prison were rearrested within five years. The Commission, using a comparable five year follow-up period and including only federal offenders released from prison (i.e., excluding those sentenced to probation or a fineonly), found the recidivism rate for these federal offenders was 44.9 percent.40

Using reconviction as the measure of recidivism, BJS found that 55.4 percent of state offenders had an arrest within five years that led to a conviction. The reconviction rate for federal offenders over the same length of time was 26.0 percent. When recidivism is measured by reincarceration, BJS found a 28.2 recidivism rate for state offenders within five years that led to an incarceration, compared to 20.7 percent of the federal offenders in the Commission’s study.

Time to First Recidivism Event

The measure of the time to first recidivism event can be useful in distinguishing offenders who recidivate early from those who eventually recidivate, but are apparently crime-free for a longer interval. Tracking the length of time to failure can also help policymakers determine an appropriate period of supervision after the release from prison, for example by extending supervision through the peak crime-prone interval.41 Time from release to first arrest is shown for all rearrests, reconvictions, and reincarcerations.

During the first year following release into the community, 16.6 percent of the offenders in the Commission’s study were rearrested for the first time. Each subsequent year fewer people were rearrested for the first time than in the previous year, going out to year seven. For example, 10.5 percent of the total were rearrested in the second year, and 6.6 percent of the total were rearrested in the third year. An additional 1.8 percent of offenders who were not previously arrested were rearrested in the eighth year, as demonstrated below.

Recidivism Table 2

FIGURE 4

Time to First Rearrest or Recidivism Study Offenders

Recidivism Figure 4

Most Serious Recidivism Offense

The Commission ranked new offenses in order of seriousness for those who reoffended. When considering only the “most serious” post-release offense committed by those who were rearrested, assault was the most prevalent. About one-fourth (23.3%) of those rearrested had an assault rearrest as their most serious post-release event over the study period. Other common “most serious” offenses were public order (15.5%), drug trafficking (11.5%), and larceny (7.7%).

Recidivism Figure 5

Recidivism and Criminal History

The relationship between prior criminal record and recidivism has been recognized by the Commission since its inception in the mid-1980s, as discussed in Chapter Four of the Guidelines Manual.42 Empirical research assessing correlates of recidivism and criminal career behavior was consulted in formulating the criminal history scoring system43 and recent research confirms this relationship.44 The previously referenced Commission study, Measuring Recidivism (2004), confirmed that Chapter Four’s criminal history provisions were working as designed, and recidivism rates rise as criminal history points increase and as Criminal History Categories increase. The present analysis confirms that these criminal history provisions continue to work as designed.

An offender’s total criminal history points, which determines the CHC to which the offender is assigned for the purpose of calculating the sentencing range under the guidelines, is designed in part to reflect recidivism potential. In order “to protect the public from further crimes of the particular defendant, the likelihood of recidivism and future criminal behavior must be considered.”45 Fully consistent with its previous recidivism studies, the Commission’s present study found that recidivism rates are most closely correlated with total criminal history points. For example, 30.2 percent of offenders with zero total criminal history points were rearrested within eight years, compared to 81.5 percent of offenders with more than 10 total criminal history points. In fact, each additional criminal history point is generally associated with a greater likelihood of recidivism. For example, the rearrest rate of offenders with three total criminal history points is 52.7 percent, compared to 59.4 percent for four point offenders. This pattern continues even at higher total points, with rearrest rates ranging from 71.1 percent (seven point offenders), 74.0 percent (eight point offenders), and 76.1 percent (nine point offenders).46

Recidivism Figure 6

Because an offender’s criminal history score determines the CHC to which he or she is assigned, recidivism rates are also correlated with the CHC. That is, the higher the CHC (a result of more prior crimes and/or more serious crimes), the higher the recidivism rate. Rearrest rates ranged from a low of 33.8 percent for those in CHC I to a high of 80.1 percent for those in CHC VI.

Other guideline provisions that account for an offender’s prior crimes also serve as good predictors of future recidivism. For example, offenders designated under the guidelines as career offenders47 and armed career criminals48 receive substantially increased sentences because they are repeat offenders with serious criminal backgrounds. These offenders have substantially higher recidivism rates than other offenders in the study group. In fact, those two groups of offenders have the highest recidivism rates of any group in this report. Taken together, these offenders had a rearrest rate of 69.5 percent, compared to a rearrest rate of 48.7 percent for all other offenders.

FIGURE 7A

Rearrest Rates for Recidivism Study Offenders by Criminal History Category

Recidivism Figure 7A

Recidivism Figure 7B

The Commission did not find a strong correlation between the severity of the offender’s federal offense conduct, as determined under the sentencing guidelines, and future recidivism. Under the guidelines, the seriousness of an offender’s federal crime is measured by a final offense level score ranging from one to 43. There is not a strong correspondence between final offense level and recidivism. For example, offenders whose federal offense was assigned to the lowest final offense levels (one through eight) had a rearrest rate of 45.2 percent, almost the same rearrest rate as those assigned the highest final offense levels of 31 through 43 (45.7%). It should be noted, however, that the offense levels in the federal sentencing guidelines were intended to reflect multiple purposes of punishment, including just punishment and general deterrence (which are unrelated to offender recidivism).49

Although the specific numerical offense severity determined under the sentencing guidelines appears to not be correlated with recidivism, the type of crime the offender committed does have some correlation with the risk of future crime. Offenders whose federal offense involved firearms were most likely to be rearrested (68.3%), followed by those arrested for robbery (67.3%), immigration (55.7%), drug trafficking (49.9%), larceny (44.4%), other (42.0%), and fraud (34.2%).

Offenders who received an enhanced sentence for a weapon, either through a conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) or by application of a specific offense characteristic in the guidelines for having a weapon present during commission of a crime,50 had higher recidivism rates than other offenders. Offenders with such a weapon enhancement had a rearrest rate of 55.4 percent, compared to 48.6 percent for all other offenders.

Recidivism Figure 8

Offenders who were organizers, leaders, managers, or supervisors of an offense received an aggravating role adjustment of 2, 3, or 4 levels51 under the guidelines, increasing their total offense level. Those with such an aggravating role adjustment were less likely to recidivate than other offenders. Those receiving no adjustment (93.6 percent of all offenders in the study) had a rearrest rate of 50.2 percent. However, those receiving aggravating role adjustments had recidivism rates of: 37.3 percent (two level increase); 35.6 percent (three level increase); and 33.7 percent (four level increase).

Offenders who were found to have a minor or minimal role in an offense received a mitigating role adjustment of 2, 3, or 4 levels52 under the guidelines, decreasing their total offense level. Offenders in the study with such a mitigating role adjustment (10.6% of all offenders) were somewhat less likely to recidivate than other offenders. Those receiving no adjustment had a rearrest rate of 49.7 percent. However, those receiving mitigating role adjustments had recidivism rates of: 47.2 percent (two level decrease); 37.5 percent (three level decrease); and 43.6 percent (four level decrease).

An offender who demonstrates acceptance of responsibility for his offense can receive a reduction in offense level of 2 or 3 levels.53 The vast majority of all offenders in the Commission’s study (90.7%) received a reduction in their guideline range for acceptance of responsibility. Such an adjustment was not associated with lower recidivism rates. Offenders with no adjustment under §3E1.1 had a rearrest rate of 46.3 percent. Offenders who received a two-level decrease had a rearrest rate of 46.6 percent, and those with a three level decrease were higher still (50.9%).

Recidivism Figure 9

Recidivism and Sentences Imposed

Recidivism rates differ according to the type of sentence imposed. As previously noted, 81.2 percent of the study group were sentenced to some amount of imprisonment. These offenders had the highest rate of rearrest, 52.5 percent. Conversely, offenders sentenced to probationary sentences (18.8 percent of the study group) had a rearrest rate of 35.1 percent.54

Offenders with shorter lengths of imprisonment generally had lower recidivism rates. For instance, offenders with sentences of imprisonment of fewer than six months had the lowest rearrest rate at 37.5 percent, followed by offenders with sentences from six to 11 months (50.8 percent), and 12 to fewer than 24 months (50.8%). Conversely, the highest recidivism rates are generally found among offenders with longer sentences. Those with sentences from 60 months to fewer than 120 months had the highest rate (55.5%), followed closely by those with 24 to fewer than 60 months (54.0%), and 120 months or more (51.8%).55

The correlation between sentence type and length and recidivism is not, of course, entirely a coincidence. The guidelines are intended, in part, to incapacitate offenders whose criminal records indicate a greater risk of future criminality. Those with prison sentences are incapacitated in a manner that those receiving no term of incarceration are not, and those receiving longer terms of incarceration as a result of their higher CHCs are also at greater risk of recidivism than those receiving no incarceration or a shorter period of incarceration who generally had lower CHCs.

The most common length of supervised release imposed for those offenders who received terms of supervised release to follow their terms of imprisonment was 36 months. Offenders ordered to serve a term of supervised release of three years were the majority of offenders, and this group had the highest rearrest rate, 55.4 percent. The lowest rearrest rate was found among offenders serving a term of supervised release of ten years or more (42.7%), and the second lowest rate occurred with offenders serving two year terms (46.8%).

Recidivism Figure 10

Recidivism and Offender Characteristics

Studies have repeatedly shown that older offenders at sentencing are at lower risk for reoffending, and the Commission’s research confirms these findings.56 Offenders sentenced when younger than twenty-one had a 71.1 percent rearrest rate, compared to 14.0 percent of offenders who are sentenced after age sixty.

Age at release also is associated with different rates of recidivism. Those released into the community who were below age twenty-one had the highest rearrest rate, 67.6 percent. Conversely, those oldest at age of release, over sixty years old, had the lowest recidivism rate, 16.0 percent. For each age grouping shown below, the older the age group, the lower the rearrest rate. The same pattern holds for reconviction and reincarceration.

Recidivism Figure 11

Male offenders (52.2%) were rearrested at higher rates than females (36.4%).

Eight years after release into the community, Black offenders had been arrested at the highest rates (59.1%), followed by Other Race (49.4%), Hispanic (49.1%), and White (41.7%) offenders. However, the apparent relationship between race/ethnicity and recidivism is much less pronounced if the prior criminal history of these offenders is also examined. For offenders assigned to higher CHCs, recidivism results are similar, regardless of race or ethnicity. Rearrest rates for White, Black, and Hispanic offenders in CHC IV are 69.7 percent, 77.6 percent, and 75.4 percent, respectively. At CHC V for the same three groups, the rearrest rates are 75.6, 78.5, and 79.9 percent, respectively. At CHC VI for the same three groups, the rearrest rates are 77.1, 82.4, and 79.3 percent, respectively. Much of the difference in overall recidivism rates appears to be the result of the differing proportion of Black offenders in CHC I (38.9%), compared to White offenders (59.7%) and Hispanic offenders (62.2%).

Education levels are also associated with different rates of recidivism. Offenders with less than a high school diploma had the highest recidivism rates (60.4%), followed by high school graduates (50.7%) and those with some college (39.3%). College graduates had the lowest rates (19.1%).

Recidivism Figure 12

Conclusion

The study of recidivism by federal offenders directly relates to multiple statutory purposes of punishment as set forth in the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. Using automated criminal history data, the Commission tracked 25,431 federal offenders who either discharged a federal prison sentence or commenced a term of probation in 2005 during an eight-year follow-up period. The Commission found that almost one-half of these federal offenders who reentered the community in 2005 (49.3%) were rearrested for a new crime or rearrested for a violation of supervision conditions during the follow-up period.

The Commission found that, consistent with existing research,57 two factors – offenders’ criminal histories and their ages at the time of release into the community – were most closely associated with differences in recidivism rates. Younger offenders recidivated at significantly higher rates than older offenders, and offenders with more extensive criminal histories recidivated at significantly higher rates than offenders with lesser criminal histories. Regarding criminal history in particular, the Commission found that an offenders’ total criminal history points, as determined under Chapter Four of the Commission’s Guidelines Manual, were closely correlated with recidivism rates.

Other factors, including educational achievement and offense type, also were associated with differences in recidivism rates, but less so than age and criminal history. Certain factors related to provisions in Chapters Two and Three of the Guidelines Manual – including adjustments in an offender’s offense level as well as the total offense level – were not associated with differences in rates of recidivism. However, unlike Chapter Four’s provisions – which were based in large part on recidivism data – the guideline’s offense level computations are based on several purposes of punishment, some of which are unrelated to recidivism, including general deterrence and retributivist concerns.

*This report has been modified for publication on the Sanders Institute website. To read the full article click here

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