Fewer inmates than ever are landing back in prison for new crimes, according to the most recent data from state correctional authorities.
The so-called “return rate” has hovered around 40 percent since the mid 1980s, meaning that four out of 10 people who land in the pokey will be back there at some point in the future. Whatever the reasons for return — prison reform advocates say the problem is a lack of education programs inside and paltry support for offenders after they’re released — the return rate is viewed as an important measure of how well prisons are functioning.
Over the last several decades, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision has tracked return rates by monitoring, for three years, every prisoner released. The DOC watches to see if they land back in the clink, and for what reasons, and tallies up the results by age and crimes committed and a number of other criteria.
The return rate for inmates released in 2010 is still at that 40 percent level. But in a hopeful sign, returns because of a conviction for new crimes has fallen to 9 percent. That’s the lowest level since the agency started keeping track.
The report drills down to some very specific data: Upstate urban offenders return at a rate of 49 percent, compared to just 38 percent in New York City. And only 29 percent of women return, compared to 43 percent of men. Most of those inmates, the new numbers tell us, end up back inside because of parole violations. In some ways the numbers are no surprise — crime rates in general have been falling since the early ’90s, so it follows that ex-cons, too, would be committing relatively less crime.
But there’s another stat that Mujahid Farid, director of an organization called Release Aging People From Prison (RAPP), finds particularly interesting. The youngest offenders are the most likely to return — no surprise there — and more than half of offenders under 21 will be back inside within the three-year period covered by the DOC reports. But a careful look at the numbers, Farid points out, shows that recidivism rates drop precipitously as inmates age; just over 10 percent of offenders 65 and older are likely to return.
“The elderly population in prisons has been growing for years because of very long sentences,” says Farid, whose group advocates for the release of older inmates.
A rise in crime levels beginning in the late ’70s and the lock-’em-up approach to law enforcement adopted in the 1990s have left us with nearly 2 million people serving time in federal and state systems today. And the long sentences imposed back then mean that almost 125,000 inmates nationwide are now 55 or older — not old enough to be considered elderly, exactly, but old enough to dramatically increase the cost of housing them. The ACLU reports that it’s more than twice as expensive to keep prisoners incarcerated past that age, mostly because of increased healthcare costs.
Given their low recidivism rates, Farid says, it might also be unnecessary, even for those convicted of serious crimes. It may be counterintuitive, but offenders convicted of crimes like murder have relatively low return rates; it’s things like burglary and robbery that most often return an offender to prison, the report shows.
“It’s pretty amazing how low-risk that category of people are, especially when you look at elderly inmates with serious offenses,” Farid says. But that’s the rub. Those convicted of serious crimes are often the ones parole boards are least eager to set free.
“It’s a political hot potato,” Farid says, “because they’re afraid of being illustrated in the news as being soft on crime.”
Read the entire report below.