Economic Outlook: Using Data to Reduce Recidivism (Part 1 of a Two-Part Series)

Randy ShumwayBehind every crime is an individual who has crossed the line that separates societal and moral acceptability from the realm of injustice.

As a society, we try to limit crime’s capacity to harmfully interfere in our lives by sending those who cross that line to prison.  In an ideal scenario, an individual who has crossed the line would go through correction, learn new behaviors, and become a productive member of society. However, according to the National Institute of Justice, about two-thirds of released prisoners are rearrested within three years of release—and this figure rises to about three-quarters at five years from the date of release. While putting criminals in prison may provide some comfort for the victims and some protection for society, these numbers show that prison time simply doesn’t resolve the core causes of crime, and doesn’t really make any of us safer in the long run.

Preventing a repeat offense begins with identifying an offender’s underlying issues or motivations. Prison may be an effective measure for protecting society from a habitual sociopath, but many who commit crimes do so because of mental illness, substance abuse, ingrained socialized behavior, material want, poor judgment, or desperation, among other reasons. Just as a doctor prescribes a remedy tailored to a patient’s specific needs, offenders need customized means of correction, not just different doses of prison time. The sort of correction that will have a long-term impact is more than just punishment—it is meaningful intervention.  The mentally ill should be treated, the substance abusers should complete addiction recovery programs, and the materially needy should be provided viable skills and opportunities for meaningful employment.

So how can a judge identify the best correction path for an offender? A powerful set of studies published through the University of Cincinnati summarizes the principles of effective intervention as risk, need, treatment, and fidelity. In addressing the first of these principles, studies increasingly suggest that judges can use data alongside experience and discernment to identify risk factors and prescribe effective intervention. Data-driven sentencing can quantify risk factors in an accused’s educational background, employment, historical behavior, family situation, personal acquaintances, and present and past observed criminal activity to help determine the appropriate intervention relative to the individual’s need. By using data, judges can focus on mitigating risk of future criminal activity and recidivism and giving individuals a better chance at a productive life upon completion of their sentence.

Targeting and intervening differently for high-risk and low-risk offenders not only improves outcomes, but also saves money by reducing prison populations. For example, New York State’s youth prisons spend $210,000 per year per youth and still have an 89-percent recidivism rate for boys. In contrast, prison costs and recidivism rates are falling in Missouri, thanks in large part to a more innovative, intervention-intensive approach. Unlike judges in New York, who are essentially limited to offering a one-track juvenile corrections system, judges in Missouri can identify and assess different risk factors for youth, thereby identifying and sentencing many who would be likely to benefit from intervention to shorter stays in smaller facilities throughout the state. In such facilities, youth are treated respectfully and therapeutically by staff who have been highly trained to rehabilitate specific juvenile issues and behaviors. While these programs are slightly more expensive than traditional correction in the short run, only 8 percent of youths in the Missouri system return or go on to adult prison.

Data-driven correction programs effectively use the risk principle to target low-risk offenders for intervention. One study of 26 correction programs found that ignoring the risk principle actually increased recidivism by 4 percent, whereas assessing risk to determine appropriate intervention and correction reduced recidivism by 19 percent. Instead of punishing offenders of all types similarly, judges can use smarter, risk-targeted sentencing focused on intervention to yield hefty long-term savings and have a greater impact on individuals and society. From an economic perspective, reducing repeat offense has a significant impact on state and national financial investment. From a societal perspective, reducing recidivism means that more former inmates are able to integrate productively with society. This is a serious and important step to help tackle the core issues of crime.

The next article of this two-part series will discuss the need, treatment, and fidelity principles of effective correctional intervention.