Report Finds Reoffending Is Relatively Low after Life-Sentence: ‘More Punishment Does Not Lead to Less Crime’

By Angie Madrid

WASHINGTON, DC — As the U.S. deals with the issue of mass incarceration, a new report analyzed the issue of life sentencing and recidivism—finding those who have committed violent crimes rarely commit new crimes after their release.

The Sentencing Project released a report, A New Lease on Life, which emphasizes a revision of the criminal justice system. Rather than a strict life sentence, the project proposes to reform prison release mechanisms, standardize definitions of recidivism, and support those who are released.

The report suggests rates of recidivism and types of recidivism are exaggerated and misinterpreted by the media and news sources, creating an unwillingness within the public to release prisoners earlier.

According to the report, the definition of recidivism varies depending on who is asked, and each definition varies in its measure, as noted: “Sometimes recidivism refers to arrest, other times it is reconviction, and for others it is a return to prison either for a parole violation or a new crime conviction.”

Adding to these inconsistencies, the unstandardized definition of recidivism also creates issues when discussing technical violations and the specificity of crime types.

At times, technical violations of parole are included in recidivism rates when many of these violations are noncriminal. These technical violations can vary from leaving a certain area without a “travel pass” or failing to register a new email address, said the report.

Some media sources also make no distinction between violent or nonviolent crimes within recidivism.

The project concludes, “Specificity matters: people who had been convicted of an unplanned murder committed spontaneously during a felony were less likely to recidivate with a new violent offense and those whose homicide was related to family violence were also less likely to recidivate than those who committed intentional homicide.”

The report goes on to assert the reluctance from the public and others officials, in releasing individuals early, which comes from the media’s misunderstanding of recidivism and its sensationalization of certain crimes.

The report uses evidence from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), which collects and analyzes data surrounding corrections. That data supports the idea that there are low rates of violent crime recidivism, explaining, “Researchers at the BJS tracked the arrests of 404,648 people exiting prison in 2005 across 30 states; within three years, 42 percent were rearrested and within five years just over half had been rearrested.”

In a 2002 study conducted by the Bureau of Justice, it is also reported that of 272,111 prison releases across 15 states, these individuals exhibited low public safety risks after their release following a homicide conviction.

State centered research also showcases low reoffending rates are for violent crimes. After April 2021, the Louisiana board granted parole for 68 individuals in which none have been rearrested—the legislature extended parole to those after they served 25 years.

The U.S. has a unique system for life sentencing, in comparison to other countries—outside the U.S. a life sentence is around 10-15 years, international data supports these low recidivism rates for violent crimes as well.

Countries such as Australia, England, and Scandinavia demonstrate low reoffending rates after individuals are released.

In a western Australian study of 1,088 individuals convicted of homicide, 22 percent were arrested for another violent crime. In England and Wales, a study in 2013 found most prisoners were able to reintegrate into society without committing a new crime.

“Only 2.2 percent of those sentenced to a mandatory life sentence and 4.8 percent of those serving other life sentences reoffended in any way, compared to 46.9 percent of the overall prison population.”

Although the report finds low rates of reoffending, the project also highlights the needs of those released and the high risks they face after incarceration—appealing to American policymakers, academics, and leaders.

According to the report, individuals are usually not provided with a path to self-improvement, housing, job training, or other programs focused on reintegrating into the community after release.

“When we spoke with Joyce Granger, a Pennsylvania lifer released after 35 years in prison, she said that if it had not been for a nonprofit organization that provided housing, she would have been homeless. Her felony conviction rendered her ineligible for most housing assistance programs and she had few connections to the outside world,” the report authors said.

The Sentencing Project concluded policymakers and the public need to make an effort in accepting “some level of risk”—proposing accelerated prison release within the system.

Catherine Appleton, scholar on life sentences, also stated, “Lifers who fail on license (i.e., parole/release) attract a high level of publicity and attention, whereas day-to-day routine of good practice goes largely unnoticed.”

About The Author

Angie Madrid is a fourth year at UCLA, pursuing a degree in Political Science with a minor in Public Affairs. She is from Los Angeles, CA and would like to pursue law in the future.

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