Why it matters

Most states measure recidivism by tracking a cohort of people over a specified time period—typically three years. Recidivism rates are reported as the portion of people in the cohort that return to criminal activity during the tracked time period. This means the latest recidivism rates available at any point in 2018 would involve a cohort released from prison or starting supervision in 2014. This lag time hinders states’ ability to analyze the impacts of recent initiatives or changes.

More timely recidivism measures can be used to assess impacts of recidivism-reduction efforts on a monthly, quarterly, or annual basis. They can also be used to make adjustments to implementation of policies and practices accordingly. For example, if recidivism rates remain high or are increasing in certain regions or for certain criminogenic risk levels, supervision agencies can use that information to assess whether staff need further training on criminogenic risk and needs assessments and effective supervision practices, or determine whether additional supports, such as behavioral health treatment resources, are needed in those communities. If recidivism rates decline after supervision agencies apply policy changes and practices designed to reduce recidivism, these agencies can use the data to build on their successes and make refinements as needed. Having this information in as close to “real time” as possible helps supervision agency leaders assess trends as they occur instead of solely relying on measures with long lag times.

In addition to tracking rearrest, reconviction, and reincarceration rates on a regular basis, supervision agencies need to regularly track supervision revocations—the number or rate of people on probation or parole who have had their supervision status terminated either due to violating the conditions of their supervision or because they were arrested and convicted of a new crime. Probation revocation may or may not result in jail or prison incarceration time, while a parole revocation nearly always results in prison incarceration. Measuring revocations and whether they are for new crimes or violating supervision conditions is important because it shows how the criminal justice system responds to noncompliant behavior and because supervision revocations can be a driver of prison population growth.

Publishing data on all four measures of recidivism is necessary for state leaders to hold supervision agencies accountable for protecting public safety. Further, supervision agencies can use the published data to work with courts and parole boards on improving responses to violations of supervision conditions and for requesting funds from the legislature to support recidivism-reduction efforts. The most common recidivism measure states publish about people on probation or parole is revocations to prison, yet only half of states publish this number for both populations.

To help criminal justice agencies accurately record and publish timely recidivism measures, they can use state identification (SID) numbers that are unique to each person. SID numbers can help ensure the most accurate matching across criminal justice data systems. When all agencies across the criminal justice system use SID numbers, they can match the numbers to identify whether a person returns to the system, regardless of their entry point. (For additional information on SID numbers, see Part 1, Strategy 1.)

What it looks like

  • Track and publish arrest, conviction, incarceration, and revocation of people on supervision on a monthly, quarterly, and annual basis.
    • See Case Study: States use more timely measures to track recidivism events
  • Ensure that data systems can show whether people are revoked from probation or parole for committing new crimes or for violating the conditions of supervision.
  • Require the use of a unique state identification number across all agencies for people in the criminal justice system.

Key questions to guide action

  • How frequently does your state track and publish arrest, conviction, and incarceration data for people on supervision?
  • Does your state track and publish revocation data on a monthly, quarterly, and/or annual basis? If not, what barriers exist to publishing such data?
  • Last year, what percentage of people were revoked from supervision for violating conditions of their supervision, and not for committing a crime?
  • Does your state use a SID number? What data system upgrades are necessary to ensure a SID number is used across the criminal justice system?
  • What percentage of people arrested in your state last year were on supervision?

Use the information that follows to inform your answers to these questions.

Tracking and reporting certain types of recidivism events offers more timely and actionable information than traditional cohort-based recidivism reporting.

Half of states track and publish probation and parole revocations to prison, which are a more timely measure than cohort-based recidivism metrics.

Most states report not using a common ID number across criminal justice data systems, which limits their ability to conduct timely measures of recidivism.

Additional Resources

Using recidivism as a performance measure

Detailed and accurate recidivism data is needed to measure recidivism-reduction efforts. To help jurisdictions identify the appropriate measures to use, the Urban Institute released a brief explaining what jurisdictions should consider when defining, identifying, analyzing, and disseminating recidivism data. The report recommends measuring how many people released from prison never return to prison, measuring how long people remain crime free, assessing whether the crimes of those who reoffend are more or less serious than their previous offense, and identifying interventions that are most effective at reducing recidivism and for whom. For additional information, see Improving Recidivism as a Performance Measure.

A cohort-based analysis of people released from prison may track all people released in 2010, for example, and measure the rate of returns to prison within three years. If there were 100 people in the 2010 release cohort and 32 of them returned to prison within three years, the recidivism rate for this cohort would be 32 percent.

Case Study

States use more timely measures to track recidivism events

Some states have taken steps to look beyond traditional recidivism measures, such as cohort-based analyses, to use more timely measures to understand whether people on supervision are remaining compliant.

  • Parole officials in Kansas use monthly revocation reports to determine how well people are faring on supervision. These reports include the number of people who are revoked to supervision for violating conditions of their supervision, as well as committing new crimes. The officials also use these monthly reports to pinpoint regions in the state where revocation rates are high in order to focus training and resources to help officers abide by supervision policies and identify more cost-effective responses, where appropriate.
  • New York publishes annual arrest reports on the number of arrests by county and the percentage of arrests for misdemeanors and felonies by people on probation and parole.