There have been two significant studies on recidivism in recent times: the first published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in April 2014, tracking 400,000 inmates released in 2005 for five years until 2010; and the second published by the United States Sentencing Commission in March 2016, tracking 25,431 inmates released in 2005 for eight years until 2013.

The conventional wisdom is that over two-thirds of released inmates are re-arrested (though not necessarily re-convicted or -re-incarcerated) within a five year period of release. However, a contrarian view has been presented by William Rhodes and others, arguing that the data sample in those two prior studies overly represented repeat offenders that had accumulated in prisons, and that in fact 2 out of 3 inmates released never re-offend and only 11 percent re-offend more than once.

The causes cited for relapse into criminal behavior include both:

  • a failure of prisons to rehabilitate:
    • drug addictions
    • job skills
    • educational levels
    • social skills and mental habits
    • lack of money for inmates on the date of their release
  • unchangeable characteristics of the offender’s environment outside of prison
    • poor family support system
    • poverty and resulting scarcity of available jobs
    • long-time connections to former associates such as gang members
    • stigma of being an ex-con and resulting difficulty getting a job or housing

Overall, rates of recidivism have been going up, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics:

Percent of released prisoners rearrested within 3 years

Younger inmates are more likely to re-offend, according to the 2016 publication by the United States Sentencing Commission:

Rearrest rates for Recidivism Study Offenders by Age at Sentencing and Release

According to the same study, the longer an offender went without being re-arrested, the less likely they were to get re-arrested:

Rearrest Rates for Recidivism Study Offenders

Rearrest rates were also correlated with Gender, Race/Ethnicity, and Education Level:

Rearrest Rates for Recidivism Study Offenders by Selected Demographic Characteristics

Rates were significantly higher for offenders arrested for state crimes versus federal crimes, according to this report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics:

Prisoners released on community supervision who were rearrested

The type of crime committed is also correlated with recidivism rates, with property crimes having slightly higher repeat offense rates than others:

Percent of released prisoners rearrested with 3 years by offense.