Recidivism and Criminal Specialization

It is widely known that many offenders find themselves in trouble with the law again within a few years of their release from prison, but do the recidivism data reflect specialization among criminals? The question has implications for sentencing, among other things. Judges appropriately take risk of reoffense into account when setting prison terms, but, in assessing these risks, it is important to know not only whether a defendant is likely to commit another crime, but also what crimes the defendant is most likely to commit. We may want to keep our likely future murderers and rapists behind bars as long as possible, but we probably feel quite differently about potential future shoplifters and disorderly drunks.

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics is an excellent resource for national recidivism trends. As discussed in this earlier post, the BJS’s most recent major report in this area appeared in 2014. Last week, the BJS issued supplemental tables that speak to the specialization question.

In brief, the evidence points to a modest degree of specialization, varying considerably by offense type.

Consider sexual assault, for instance. 

This is a crime as to which perceptions of specialization are common, which helps to explain the many special registration laws for sex offenders. The BJS data, which cover thirty states, indicate that about sixty percent of those imprisoned for sexual assault were rearrested for a new offense within five years of release. This may seem like a very high number, but it is actually lower than the overall rearrest rate of nearly seventy-seven percent. Also, it is important to realize that arrest is a preliminary step in the criminal process and should not be equated with guilt. For instance, the original 2014 report found an overall reconviction rate of only fifty-five percent, in comparison with the rearrest rate of seventy-seven percent.

How about specialization? It is true that the sexual assault offenders were more likely to experience a subsequent arrest for sexual assault than were any of the other types of offenders studied. In all, 5.6 percent of the released sexual assault offenders were rearrested for a new sexual assault within five years. No other offender group was arrested for sexual assault at even half this rate.

Yet, the rearrests for sexual assault still accounted for only a tiny percentage of the overall recidivism of those previously imprisoned for sexual assault. Most of their rearrests were for public-order offenses. Drug arrests were also far more common than sexual assault rearrests.

The highest degrees of specialization were exhibited by thieves, drug offenders, and public-order offenders. Among those imprisoned for theft (including car theft), more than forty-one percent were rearrested for theft within five years of release. Among the drug offenders, rearrest for drug offenses was even higher at fifty-one percent. (It would help to have a breakdown of simple possession versus trafficking offenses, but that is not available.)

Among the public-order offenders, rearrest for a new public-order offense occurred in nearly sixty percent of cases. It is hardest to know what to make of this category, though, because it includes such a disparate set of offenses, including DUI, parole violation, illegal possession of a weapon, and a variety of other crimes. When a released DUI offender is arrested after being found in possession of a firearm, that would not seem to indicate any particular specialization.

A final cautionary note is in order. The new offense-by-offense breakdowns in the BJS data are suggestive of the varying risk levels presented by different types of offenders, but individuals can be assessed much more accurately if additional data are considered, such as age and fuller information about prior convictions and incarcerations.

Cross posted at Life Sentences.

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