The word recidivism comes from the Latin recidīvus, which is composed of re- “back” and cedō “I fall”.
California has one of the highest rates of recidivism in the nation. According to a 2014 report by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 61% of those released from California’s prison system return within three years. And nearly 50% of inmates who recidivate within three years do so within the first six months.
Definitions are important here. The CDCR rate is calculated by counting those released from prison who return to prison, either in the form of parole violations or new crimes. It does not count the number of former CDCR inmates arrested, convicted, or given probation. Thus, a CDCR inmate may be released, commit a misdemeanor, be convicted, and sent to county jail, and still not be counted in the CDCR recidivism rate. Nor does this rate include those who re-offend out of state. As the Public Policy Institute of California points out, realignment also reduces the recidivism rate under the CDCR definition by moving prisoners to county jails. Thus, even though the CDCR rate is shockingly high, it actually understates the problem of recidivism by using a narrow definition.
As the California Innocence Project puts it, these recidivism rates “represent a complete failure of the prison system to achieve its supposed goals of deterrence and rehabilitation.”
These statistics have implications for prosecutor during plea bargaining and sentencing.
Plea bargains should anticipate the likelihood that the Defendant will recidivate. This may mean more incarceration time. Studies show that an extra month in prison reduces the recidivism rate by 1%. If a judge is resistant to this fact, prosecutors may want to suspend execution of sentence in order to make sure that the Defendant suffers actual consequences from a parole violation. Judges are often resistant to these types of plea bargains because they take away a judge’s decision as to what kind of punishment to impose for a parole violation. But light sentences given by these same judges may play a role in the sky-high recidivism rate. Moreover, if a Defendant’s parole violation is merely run concurrent with a new violation, she suffers no actual consequence for the violation. She will serve the same amount of time that she would if she had just committed the crime the constituted the parole violation.
Prosecutors and judges should craft sentences that reduce the risk of recidivism, particularly during the first six months, when most parolees reoffend. The seriousness of an inmate’s commitment crime is often inversely related to her recidivism risk. For example, second-degree murderers have a recidivism rate of 10.3% while car thieves have a 72.5% recidivism rate.
Both of these goals are especially difficult now that realignment has weakened the threat of returning the parolee to prison.