Recidivism Rates

A recidivist is a person who is released from prison and who later commits another crime, or reoffends, such as a parole violation or the commission of a new crime. California defines a recidivist as a person who commits a new crime or violates parole within three years of his or her release from custody. Recidivism rates by state vary, but California is among the highest in the nation. According to a 2012 report by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, more than 65 percent of those released from California’s prison system return within three years. Seventy-three percent of the recidivist committed a new crime or violated parole within the first year. These numbers have not changed significantly over the years. Also, those convicted of property crime are much more likely to recidivate than those convicted of serious crime. Such high recidivism rates represent a failure of the prison system to achieve its supposed goals of deterrence and rehabilitation. A 2019 report released by the State of California acknowledged CDCR’s attempt at rehabilitation has failed 62 percent of the inmates released in 2017-2018.

Programs for Inmates

Recidivism is a multi-tiered problem with no easy answer. It is important to note, however, that many studies show that prison programs which provide institutional programming have lower recidivism rates among those who are released. Programs for the incarcerated, such as anger management, vocational skills training, educational opportunities, and even trauma support groups, are vital to ensuring inmates who are reintroduced to society have the life skills necessary to stay on the right path. For example, participants in prison substance abuse programs recidivate at a much lower rate than those who do not participate.

Reentry Services and the Exonerated

Rates of recidivism are also affected by the reentry services provided to individuals released from prison on parole or as a result of a determinate sentence. In many states, exonerees do not have access to reentry services provided to parolees, although they are in need of the same support. The exonerated often suffer from PTSD, lack occupational training and skills, and cope with other issues related to the years they spent wrongfully incarcerated.

The Need for Adequate Services to Deter & Rehabilitate

Reentry projects report that 33% of all prison admissions nationwide are due to parole violations. To reduce recidivism, communities need to consider factors such as the threat of homelessness, mental health services, substance abuse programs, adequate health care, education and employment assistance, and family support. In addition, female inmates may need programs and services that are different from male inmates.

Unfortunately, however, California is one of many states which have stripped its prisons of rehabilitative programming over the years. Legislators and special interests who shape the institutional model for California’s prison system have decreased funding, or defunded altogether, programs which are designed to rehabilitate the prison population by arguing such programs are “soft on crime,” including parole services. As a result, inmates are often unable to participate in programs even if they are interested; wait times for valuable programs can be months or even years. The system is meant to deter those convicted from committing crimes again and rehabilitate them so that they can become productive members of society upon release. It is clear, though, that the system is flawed when two-thirds of those released ultimately return to prison. The prison system needs to address these recidivism rates and make the changes necessary to meet its goals: deter and rehabilitate.