In a Nutshell
- Formerly incarcerated people who are over the age of 40, have stable jobs, and who have gone several years without committing a crime are the least likely to reoffend.
- Socioeconomic factors impact the likelihood of incarceration and affect rates of recidivism, and the opportunity to obtain stable employment is critical to reducing recidivism.
- Creating more economic opportunities for formerly incarcerated individuals is vital – not only for their well-being – but for public safety and state and local budgets.
The issue of recidivism and public safety re-emerged amid the controversy surrounding newly appointed Michigan Supreme Court Justice Kyra Bolden’s decision to hire a law clerk who had been formerly incarcerated. The criticism and backlash to this decision was spearheaded primarily by Justice Richard Bernstein, who expressed discomfort and concern in the choice of hiring, ultimately leading to the law clerk’s resignation. While Justice Bernstein has since apologized for his statements, the debate regarding formerly incarcerated people and their place in society remains. Fortunately, there is considerable data on incarceration, recidivism, and reentry into society that can help us answer some questions and concerns, particularly as it pertains to public safety.
Initial Incarceration and Economic Distress
Research consistently shows that the risk of incarceration is higher for certain groups and communities. Black and Hispanic populations, people with low education, and communities experiencing high rates of poverty are more likely to be arrested and incarcerated. A greater percentage of individuals who had parents with incomes in the bottom 20 percent are more likely to be incarcerated (see chart below). Generally, the data shows that the wealthier your parents are, the less likely you are to be incarcerated.
The bases for incarceration are often directly or indirectly tied to economic distress. For example, many crimes are directly related to a lack of financial resources, including homelessness and failure to pay child support or other fees, while other bases for incarceration, such as substance abuse, are indirectly associated with poverty. A quarter of those incarcerated in the United States are pre-trial detainees that cannot afford bail. Further, according to a Bureau of Justice statistics study of formerly incarcerated people, 60 percent or more were unemployed before their initial incarceration, with variations by race, ethnicity, and gender. Lastly, poverty disproportionately impacts the same racial and ethnic groups that face a higher likelihood of incarceration.
Incarceration Rates By Parent Income
Source: The Brookings Institution.
Criminal recidivism, generally referring to a person’s relapse into criminal behavior, can be measured in a variety of ways and can differ from state to state. Recidivism is most commonly measured by instances of arrest, conviction, or incarceration within a certain time frame after release. Michigan defines recidivism in statute as “any rearrest, reconviction, or reincarceration in prison or jail for a felony or misdemeanor offense or a probation or parole violation of an individual as measured first after 3 years and again after 5 years from the date of his or her release from incarceration, placement on probation, or conviction, whichever is later.”
The Michigan Department of Corrections has typically only reported the percentage of people who return to prison within three years of release. The most recent data, released in early 2022, indicates that 23.6 percent of prisoners released in Michigan returned to prison within three years. This was the lowest mark in the state’s history and was the fourth lowest in the nation, according to the department. Michigan’s return-to-prison rate has been generally declining for the last few decades – in 1998, the return-to-prison rate reached 45.7 percent.
Based on broader national U.S. Department of Justice data, a fairly large percentage of released prisoners will end up back in prison, and an even larger percentage will be arrested for some offense, within 10 years of release. The report analyzed arrest data of over 73,000 released prisoners across 24 states over a 10-year period (2008-2018). Overall, rates of recidivism were high, with 66 percent of the released prisoners arrested again within three years of release, and 82 percent arrested within ten years of release. The cumulative percentage of state prisoners who were convicted of a new crime (about 48 percent by year three and about 69 percent by year ten) was substantively lower than the percentage of rearrests.
Several factors impact the likelihood of rearrest, including demographics, such as race, sex, and age at initial arrest; offense and offender characteristics, such as type of offense, number of prior arrets, and amount of time served; and post-release circumstances and behavior, including the amount of time out of prison without an arrest.
Generally, young men of color have the highest risk of rearrest and reincarceration. Formerly incarcerated men were more likely than formerly incarcerated women to be arrested and to return to prison following their release. Further, a greater percentage of released prisoners who were Black (63 percent) had returned to prison by the end of 10-year period following release than those who were white (59 percent). However, age at initial arrest appears to be a more significant factor than either race or sex – those who were under 40 at the time initial arrest were significantly more likely to be rearrested and return to prison than those over 40.
Offense and Offender Characteristics
The type of offense that led to the original conviction and incarceration impacts not only the likelihood of recidivism, but the type of crimes that lead to rearrest. While public safety is threatened by all types of crime, public concern intensifies for violent offenses. However, formerly incarcerated people who committed a violent offense were not the most likely to be arrested for any type of crime in the 10-year period following release – both property offenders (87 percent) and drug offenders (8
1 percent) were more likely than violent offenders (77 percent) to be rearrested. Further, the most common reason for rearrest for all offenders, including violent offenders, was for a public order offense (a broad category of crime encompassing violations that disrupt the public order, including failure to pay child support or fines, identity theft, counterfeiting, false reporting, and some gambling offenses, among others). Those who committed a violent offense were more likely to be rearrested for a public order offense (65 percent) than a violent crime (44 percent).
Two additional factors, number of prior arrests and time served, influence the likelihood of recidivism. Fewer arrests before initial conviction and more time served after conviction significantly reduced the likelihood of recidivism. Prisoners with four or fewer prior arrests in their criminal history (67 percent) were less likely to be rearrested than prisoners with ten or more arrests (89 percent) in the 10 years following release; and prisoners who served more than 81 months (61 percent) were less likely to be rearrested than those who served 18 months or less (80 percent).
While an individual’s time before and during incarceration can predict their likelihood of recidivism, the most significant predictor of recidivism is previous re-offending. Those who had been out of prison without an arrest for 10 years were very unlikely to be rearrested for any crime. The annual arrest percentage of released prisoners declined significantly over the ten-year period – the largest portion (14 percent) of these arrests was made in the first year, decreasing to eight percent by year ten. Essentially, the longer a person goes without being arrested following release, the less likely they are to be arrested at all.
Returning to the same conditions and lack of resources that led to their initial incarceration, however, makes reentry into society particularly challenging. Individuals who were unemployed before incarceration and/or struggled financially face even greater obstacles to obtaining stable employment when released. Research has shown that having a job can reduce recidivism and individuals are less likely to commit crimes when they have stable, full-time employment. However, studies have found that post-release employment rates return to the pre-incarceration levels within a few years. Essentially, many released prisoners either return to the economic status quo that contributed to their incarceration, or their financial struggles are exacerbated by the stigma of a criminal record.
The data suggests that the people most likely to return to prison are the same people who are most likely to end up in prison in the first place. Young people of color from underserved communities face the highest risk of incarceration, and policy solutions looking to address recidivism should include a particular focus on the needs of this population.
The most commonly deployed strategies to reduce recidivism rely on prison programming to help prepare prisoners for reentry. The programs generally focus on increasing educational attainment during incarceration and helping prisoners secure employment post-release. Prison education has consistently been shown to improve post-release employment rates, and the outcomes are greatest for prisoners with higher educational needs. Prison work release programs, which allow incarcerated individuals to work in the community, have been shown to increase the odds that participants found a job and lead to higher wages.
Michigan has done comparatively well in this regard, with programs such as the Vocational Village, which offers “intensive career and technical education programming” for offenders. As of December 2021, the return-to-prison rate was around 9 percent for offenders who completed the program. According to the Michigan Department of Corrections, the employment rate of those leaving state prison is around 30 percent, but that rate doubles for those who enroll in a vocational program (65 percent for Vocational Village in 2021). While this program has been shown to be successful, not all incarcerated people receive equivalent levels of assistance. Expanding access to the program could be a potential next step for capitalizing on this success.
These types of programs on their own, however, only go so far in reducing overall recidivism rates. Even with these programs available, the barriers to employment and economic success for formerly incarcerated people are substantial. The stigma of a criminal record can deter employers from hiring formerly incarcerated people, who many assume to be untrustworthy or anti-social. In addition, returning to communities that lack resources and have high rates of poverty further amplifies the distressing circumstances that lead to criminal behavior.
Therefore, approaches to reduce recidivism should:
- Promote and encourage the employment of and economic stability of individuals with a criminal record. (e.g. expand education and vocational programs for offenders; provide tax incentives for employers who hire formerly incarcerated people).
- Address the underlying issues that destabilize communities and provide residents with social and economic resources (e.g. increase school funding, expand access to subsidies, encourage anti-discrimination efforts, and provide substance abuse services).
Efforts to reduce recidivism should not end at the prison gates. In addition to promoting the rehabilitation of individuals leaving prison, better economic opportunity for formerly incarcerated people benefits society at large through lower crime rates and improved public safety.
Public safety is undoubtedly threatened by high rates of recidivism, as many individuals released from prison do commit new crimes after release. Recidivism, however, should be seen as a collective failure more than an individual one, and one that requires collective solutions. The state and local units of government spend a significant amount of money on law enforcement and corrections, but much of that spending is for naught if people leaving prison are not put on a path to better economic opportunity, primarily through education and employment opportunities.
Many people leaving prison have gained valuable knowledge and skills but struggle to find stable jobs to put them to use. Public and private programs to facilitate the hiring of formerly incarcerated people do not just benefit the job seeker; they benefit society as a whole and should be seen as part of the public safety apparatus. Less recidivism means fewer victims of crime and lower costs to taxpayers who would otherwise pay for the police, prosecutors, public defenders, judges, and prisons who respond to those offenses.
A formerly incarcerated person who manages to gain knowledge and skills, excel professionally, and does not commit any new crimes after a release is extremely unlikely to threaten public safety. Those interested in reducing recidivism should be looking to these individuals as examples of success, and the goal of the criminal justice system should be, in part, to put more people on this path.