Our vocabulary word for the day is “recidivism”. That’s a fancy word for what happens when a person is released from jail, and winds up committing another crime. Recidivism is studied extensively, and there have recently been some interesting findings.

Let’s start by acknowledging the general thoughts of the legal system – that longer sentences provide disincentive to commit crimes in the first place, and also disincentive to commit another crime in the future.

Is that true?

We can’t speculate as much about whether a longer sentence prevents the initial crime, since there’s no way to know which crimes haven’t been committed – but we have a lot of data about repeat offenders. Mountains of data, as a matter of fact.

And what we’ve found is surprising.

Long story short, in a recent study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), they’ve determined that over 80% of people released from prison are re-arrested for a crime within 10 years – and 62% of those wind up back in prison.

But what we’ve found about those arrest patterns is interesting.

Re-arrests are most common in the first three years. By year four, the odds of being re-arrested for the first time drops to 15%. By year ten, it’s down to 4%. And according to another study, somebody who makes it six to ten years isn’t much more likely to commit a crime than somebody with no previous arrest record at all.

It’s common to hear the argument that we should put people in jail longer, theoretically to “teach them a lesson” and reduce recidivism rates. But as we’ve seen that last part – reducing recidivism rates – doesn’t actually happen, according to the data. And it can actually create other problems.

Prisons aren’t rehabilitation centers. And there’s some data indicating that more time in prison may increase, not decrease, the recidivism rate. In other words, released prisoners can become more likely to re-offend because of the time they spent in jail.

And nothing about spending a long time in jail teaches people to deal with the circumstances that landed them in jail in the first place. Sometimes there are psychological issues to deal with. Abusive parents, peer pressure, etc. Sometimes there are economic issues to deal with. I wouldn’t claim that poverty is an excuse for crime, but it definitely explains a lot of it. And sometimes the criminal justice system itself creates situations where people almost can’t help but land back to jail due to the bizarre and conflicting requirements.

So how do we handle this?

I believe there’s some validity to providing a punishment for committing certain crimes. If somebody murders their neighbor, it makes sense for them to spend time in prison. But for many minor crimes, I would suggest that “punishment” doesn’t have to equal “prison”.

The disruption of social circles and missed economic opportunity caused by putting somebody in prison can create circumstances that contribute to more crime, not less. There are a number of known, studied options for both penalizing people and rehabilitating them without putting them in jail.

For the people who go to prison, a robust analysis of how they got there – plus in-prison programs to address those issues – could go a long way toward actually helping them be rehabilitated, not just “punished”. Psychological help, education, and other programs would provide people with coping skills and resources for when they re-enter society.

And speaking of re-entering society, support systems after prison – especially the first few years, when recidivism rates are highest – would help as well. Many people landed in prison because of poor support systems, and providing good support systems for people re-entering society could reduce recidivism rates.

The standard objection to all of this is money. How much will this all cost? I don’t have an answer, but I do know that it currently costs a lot of money to keep running these people through the court system. It costs tens of thousands of dollars to put somebody in jail for a year. And that’s not even counting the downstream costs incurred by other state programs if you put a family’s primary breadwinner in prison.

At the end of it all, I believe that the goal of the criminal justice system should ultimately be to not just punish, but to help people become productive, non-offending members of society.

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