Revolvingdoor prisons

Urban anti-crime activists say they have two groups of people to worry about in the coming years: the large cohort of youngsters now aging into their teenage years and the generation of toughs sent to prison in the crackdown of the ’90s who are now getting out.

“You’ve got young guys on the corner trying to make a name for themselves,” says Larry Mayes, an outreach worker at the Ella J. Baker Settlement House in Boston, “and older guys who want their block back.”

About the latter, there is new reason to worry. A Department of Correction study shows that nearly half of all inmates released from state prison are back behind bars within three years. Of the 3,443 inmates who got out of DOC facilities in 1995, 1,504 were sent back to prison for at least a 30-day stretch within three years of their release, for a recidivism rate of 44 percent.

Within three years, nearly half of ex-inmates are back behind bars.
The revolving-door nature of prisons here and elsewhere is not exactly news, but the extent of criminal recidivism in Massachusetts has never before been documented in this way. DOC has produced recidivism reports annually since the 1970s, but only on the basis of one-year follow up of released inmates. By the one-year measure, recidivism rates have come down from 29 percent in 1990 to 22 percent for inmates released in 1995.

But one-year rates don’t tell the whole recidivism story. The 12-month time frame is far more likely to capture the “recidivism” of parolees who are sent back to prison for violating the technical conditions of their release than ex-offenders who commit serious new crimes but must be arrested, tried, and sentenced in order to show up in the numbers. As noted in the DOC report, “Many offenders may get arrested within the first year or two of being released, but not necessarily convicted and incarcerated until over a year after being released.”

Fluctuations in one-year recidivism rates may also signal shifts in government policy more than changes in ex-con behavior. In a 1998 paper, Daniel P. LeClair, a former DOC researcher and now an associate professor of criminal justice at Stonehill College, found that the drop in recidivism from 1990 to 1992 reflected the Weld administration’s stingier granting of parole rather than more effective corrections.

The department’s shift to three-year recidivism studies is explained in part by a desire to “improve our ability to compare our finding[s] with those collected nationally and from other states,” according to the report. But that’s easier said than done. States vary widely in their definition of recidivism (ranging from rearrest to reincarceration) and length of follow-up period (mostly two or three years, but some even longer). Massachusetts counts as recidivists parole violators returned to prison for technical violations, for instance, while Florida counts only parolees who commit a new crime.

In 1989, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics studied recidivism in 11 states, coming to an average three-year return rate of 41 percent. That puts Massachusetts on the high side of the national average. And since this is the first year of three-year data here, it’s impossible to know whether the pace of re-offending is rising or falling.

The state’s recidivism rate doesn’t bother Mark Kleiman, a professor of policy studies at UCLA and the author of the 1996 MassINC report Criminal Justice in Massachusetts: Putting Crime Control First, because Massachusetts locks up a relatively small proportion of offenders. Since Massachusetts is “highly selective” about who it puts behind bars, he says, “that only 44 percent come back starts sounding like a pretty good number.”

But he does say that the recidivism rate should be used as a management tool to make corrections officials accountable for straightening out offenders while they’re in state custody, since so many of them will otherwise return to a life of crime.

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“We’ve got to pay attention to them, and we don’t,” says Kleiman. “That’s got to change.”

Until it does, activists like Mayes can look forward to the return of roughly 3,000 ex-cons a year from state facilities whose track record of turning out law-abiding citizens is none too good. And that’s not counting the thousands more coming out of county Houses of Correction, whose rate of recidivism the state doesn’t even track.

Says Mayes: “Frankly, it is not good news.”