Reducing Recidivism of Prisoners is Possible

Just watched a Senate hearing on reducing recidivism in the federal prison system.

Witnesses from the Kentucky and Pennsylvania state prison systems presented very impressive testimony on successful efforts to reduce recidivism in those states.

Representative John Tilley of the Kentucky House of Representatives listed some of the refinements that reduced recidivism in Kentucky: Reserving the most expensive beds for the most serious offenders. Finding alternatives to incarceration for low-risk nonviolent offenders. Modernized drug courts. Probation for simple drug possession. Distinguishing between drug trafficking and simple peddling for sentencing purposes. Anticipating concerns about being “soft on crime,” Representative Tilley noted that no offenses were reclassed from felony to misdemeanor as a part of these reforms.

John E. Wetzel, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, was able to boast of front-to-back-end reform in the Pennsylvania correction system (FWIW, Wetzel emphasized that this reform was made possible by serious bipartisan cooperation). The most impressive component of this reform was in risk-based sentencing: Actuarial models were used to evaluate the risk of recidivism posed by a given offender’s criminal profile before handing down a sentence. Judges were directed to incorporate this actuarial risk into their sentencing, which optimized the use of the prison system for those offenders who pose too great a risk for other correction methods. Wetzel also addressed market dynamics: Pennsylvania’s prison contractors are paid on the basis of their ability to reduce recidivism. As a result of these reforms, the crime index rate in Pennsylvania continues to go down.

Two of the witnesses were criminologists who acted as voices of caution. They focused on an important point: We tend to speak of the prison population either generically, with no differentiation between types of prisoners, or lump prisoners dichotomously into “violent” and “nonviolent” categories. However, criminal activity doesn’t fall into such neat categories. There is a certain population of strictly nonviolent offenders but most violent offenders will have many nonviolent offenses on their record as well. Risk assessments of those incarcerated for a nonviolent offense must take this breadth of activity into account because an overly simplistic release program could easily increase the national crime rate. At least one of the witnesses, Dr. Jeffrey Sedgwick of Keswick Advisors, agreed that reductions in recidivism can be achieved so long as recidivism risk assessment is sufficiently granular.

When taken together, these perspectives made for a remarkably comprehensive panel. Today’s testimony would seem to be quite informative for senators interested in reducing recidivism rates. Here’s hoping that it’s incorporated into proposed legislation.


  1. […] Logically, this thinking is sound. But for our own good, those of us not in the prosecutor’s chair should support prison reform to treat recidivism. […]

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