Recidivism is the reoccurrence of crime among people known to have committed crimes before. At all levels of justice, from local probation offices to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, if we judge the impact of interventions at all, we do so in part by measuring recidivism.
In a report John Jay College published today with the Harvard Kennedy School, they conclude that recidivism is often the wrong measure. And using it exclusively to assess the quality of justice is like using a school’s dropout rate to measure the success of teachers—it may be pertinent, but it is inadequate and often misleading.
Social bonds, education attainment, employment; they all facilitate what researchers call “desistance,” or the process by which people learn to become law-abiding. Focusing on desistance instead of recidivism leads justice systems to reorient their operations and their measurement of success. A desistance framework encourages justice agencies to promote and monitor positive outcomes.
Despite promising research on the potential for desistance-focused approaches to improve outcomes, community corrections agencies continue to rely on recidivism as the primary measure of their effectiveness.
But if justice systems are to be truly correctional, policymakers should begin to hold them to more rigorous standards, including asking systems to measure what they promise to produce and not merely what they try to avoid. This would aid policymakers in ensuring that they are getting the most from limited resources.
From the Marshall Project