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Study Sheds Light on ‘Recidivism’ and Probation and Parole Violations

While this country has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with 2.3 million of its residents in prison, it also has the alarmingly high rate of people on probation or parole: 4.5 million.

In other words, 1 in 55 adults in this country is on probation or parole. And of those 4.5 million, 40 percent will be re-arrested within one year of release and 70 percent within three years.

The Institute for Justice Research and Development (“IJRD”), a research center within the College of Social Work at Florida State University, filed its sixth quarterly report shedding some light on what the re-arrest of those who are on supervision means. Here’s what the multi-year study found.

Purpose of the Study

The study states up front that its focus is not about the rate of recidivism. Instead, the focus of the report is to highlight the impact that re-arrest of those on supervision has on them, their families, and society as a whole. The authors provide facts that might show re-arrest for non-criminal conduct could do more harm than good.

The idea, the authors say, is to create change by providing facts about supervision and recidivism and to open conversation points for those authorities responsible for making the decision to re-arrest someone. The report is just a small part of a larger study involving many states over the course of several years. The authors say they hope to show “just how complex recidivism is for some individuals as they leave prison.”

‘Recidivism’ Doesn’t Mean a New Criminal Conviction

A big misconception about recidivism, the study says, is that the public thinks that recidivism means a new criminal conviction. While a new conviction would surely be part of recidivism, it’s just a small piece of a much bigger picture.

The “broadest metric” used to assess recidivism is the re-arrest of a person on parole or probation. And a person might be re-arrested for all sorts of reasons, including new criminal behavior. They could also have violated the terms of their release, known as a “technical violation.” Circumstances beyond their control may also lead to re-arrest, such as detainers and warrants that could be many years old, predating their original conviction.

Perhaps the better metric to measure new criminal conduct and true recidivism would be reconviction, the study suggests. This happens when someone with a criminal record who may or may not be on supervision is convicted of a new crime — the most common understanding of “recidivism.”

Questions for Authorities Allowing Re-Arrests for Non-Criminal Conduct

The study highlights 35 people who were re-arrested for non-criminal technical violations of supervision, quoting them on their reasons for the re-arrest. Below are some of those direct quotes:

• “I moved and didn’t tell my PO. Unknown whereabouts equals ‘absconding.’”

• “I failed to register my vehicle change with the sheriff’s office.”

• “I did not have enough to pay bills, take care of my kids, and pay my supervision fees.”

• “I was sitting in my car with my girlfriend outside my own apartment. My probation officer showed up and said it was a curfew violation.”

• “Couldn’t pay my child support.”

• “I failed to register my new phone number.”

The authors then posed a series of questions to authorities that allow re-arrests for such non-criminal conduct: “For what reasons are stakeholders most comfortable reincarcerating individuals? Are the non-criminal behaviors described in this report reason enough to send someone to jail? Is it worth the financial costs and associated social costs?”

For example, they cited the re-arrest of the person unable to pay child support. “How did incarceration [for six months] help that participant be able to make support payments” And what about when new charges are dropped against those on supervision? “How does incarceration help them to live positively as they move forward?”


Those who are re-arrested lose jobs, housing, transportation, money, and get set back on any progress they have made. Additionally, more than five million kids have a parent in jail or prison. The re-arrest of that parent after their release makes the child “endure another cycle of loss and separation,” the study notes. “How can we develop children’s well-being and help families heal when they feel this cycle may take years to end?”

Incarceration costs this country’s taxpayers over $1 trillion annually. That’s over $2,900.00 for every man, woman, and child living in this country. This means every single member of society is also impacted by the re-arrest of people on supervision for non-criminal, technical violations of their parole or probation. The authors of the study want to change that. 


Writer’s note: Many years ago, I had the experience of being thrown in jail without bond for “violating” my probation. It took six weeks before I could see a judge, and when I finally did get a hearing, he let me go right away. He found that my stopping at a store to pick up charcoal on my way home was not a violation at all. The kind judge ripped into the prosecutor for even pursuing such a frivolous charge and reminded everyone that I was not forbidden from going to the store. Still, he gave the state more time to attempt to gather more evidence proving that I really did violate my probation, but the state finally admitted it had nothing. When I met with my PO upon my release, he said, “Did I get my point across? Remember that I’m in charge.” Luckily, I did not lose my job, and I had paid my house payments in advance. So I was covered. I didn’t lose anything. But I easily could have, and most people would have.

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