San Francisco has one of the highest recidivism rates in the state—some 78.3 percent go back to prison within three years of release—according to a report released today by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).
The study tracked about 108,000 inmates released from state prisons between 2005 and 2006 over the course of three years. Overall, the state recidivism rate, which has long been among the highest in the country, clocks in at 67.5 percent, which is not a significant change from previous statewide tallies.
“The recidivism rates in general, while not surprising, are disheartening, and attest to the complete failure of our prison system in achieving deterrence, rehabilitation, or both,” UC Hastings law professor Hadar Aviram writes in an email. “It is telling that the statistics haven’t changed significantly over time, despite increased punitive measures. Clearly, what we are doing under the title ‘corrections and rehabilitation’ does not correct or rehabilitate.”
Adds Barry Krisberg, a distinguished senior fellow and lecturer at the UC Berkeley School of Law: “People can argue that California has more gang members, or that we lock up more serious offenders, and we can debate that endlessly. The fact of the matter is, these recidivism rates are way too high.”
According to the study, the overall recidivism rate has dipped by 1.6 percent since 2005. “We’re pleased that the overall rates are down, but there is more work to be done to get the rates down even further,” says Terry Thornton, a CDCR spokesperson. “The more we can bring down recidivism, the fewer victims there will be, and that’s the bottom line.”
Locally, a number of policy reasons—ranging from prosecutorial discretion to local jail overcrowding—could be behind the higher recidivism rate in San Francisco. The study also notes that San Francisco, like other high-recidivism counties, “received more re-released inmates than those who were first released.” Re-released inmates, which are defined as people who leave prison after having violated their parole at least once, have a greater tendency to get their foot stuck in the prison revolving door, according to the CDCR report. In some cases, re-released offenders are 10 percent more likely to return to lockup.
The report is the state’s first attempt to do a deep-dive analysis on the characteristics of who’s committing crimes or violating their parole after leaving prison. “This gives us clues about what parts of the population are most likely to return to prison, and it helps us in making informed decisions about where we need to concentrate our efforts and on who,” says the CDCR’s Thornton. “Hopefully it will help legislators, law enforcement counties and CDCR figure out what we need to do and who to focus resources on because resources are limited.”
By far, men between the ages of 18 and 19 are the most likely to reoffend, and mostly for stealing cars and “absconding,” which is corrections-speak for failing to regularly report in to a parole officer. Parole violations are the reason the majority of parolees return to prison (47 percent). Recidivists also went back to prison for property crimes (8 percent), drug crimes (6 percent) and 3 percent went back for “crimes against persons.”
“The distribution of offenses is interesting,” notes UC Hasting’s Aviram, who also runs the blog California Correctional Crisis. “Twenty percent of released inmates were in [prison] for serious/violent crimes, and this percentage holds for recidivism, so it would appear that people do not ‘graduate’ to more serious crime… Also, there doesn’t seem to be a connection between seriousness of crime and recidivism.”
That inmates are churning in and out of prisons has become a pressing policy issue for policymakers in California and across the country—particularly as state and local governments have been forced to trim spending. (California has also been grappling with legal problems related to its habitual prison overcrowding, which courts have cited as a cause for substandard medical care for inmates.)
Rehabilitation and reentry programs are viewed as solid tools for curbing recidivism. For example, UC Berkeley’s Krisberg notes that research has shown that education, vocational training, expanded drug treatment, increased family visiting programs in prison and transitional housing on the outside are “overwhelmingly” associated with reduced recidivism.
But California has been doing away with these programs, Krisberg observes. “[The state is] cutting exactly the programs that would make more people succeed once they’re released, so the situation is getting worse, not better,” he says. “I’m not blaming the department of corrections because they’re being dealt a hand by legislature where they’re telling them to make cuts to their funding. The legislature refuses to save money through policy reform by investing in programs that reduce recidivism.”
This report is the first in a series of annual CDCR reports that will focus on recidivism. Future reports will potentially analyze which prison programs are associated with reducing recidivism, and provide in-depth looks at female parolees and other categories of offenders.
Most inmates who commit new crimes or violate their parole do so in the first six months. An additional 25 percent return to prison within the first year.
Recidivism in California mostly declined with age, with 74.3 percent of 18- to 19-year- olds returning to prison within three years. In contrast, parolees 60 or over return to prison 46.3 percent of the time.
Top reasons offenders return to prison include vehicle theft (77 percent), escaping/absconding (75.9 percent) and receiving stolen property (75.3 percent).
Recidivism rates increase with each additional stay at a CDCR institution. First-time offenders have a 51.1 percent likelihood of returning to prison; those who have been in prison 15 or more times have a 86.3 percent chance of going back.
Women return to prison at much lower rates than men (58 percent for women, compared to 68.6 percent for men).
Recidivism rates for first-time offenders are highest for Native Americans, African Americans and white inmates.
Sex offenders make up 6.5 percent of parolees, and have a lower recidivism rate than other offenders. Five percent of released sex offenders who recidivate are convicted of a sex offense, 8.6 percent commit an unrelated crime and 86 percent return to prison on a parole violation.
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