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New Data From BOP Reveals Technical Violations Account for Nearly a Third of First Step Act Recidivism

by Jo Ellen Nott

The Council on Criminal Justice (“CCJ”) released a December 2023 update to its original report (August 2023) on the impact of the First Step Act (“FSA”) on recidivism. The update separates new crimes from technical violations to give a more accurate picture of how the legislation is improving outcomes for former federal prisoners.

The First Step Act, passed in 2018, aimed to reduce recidivism among federal prisoners. Early analyses show promising results, with lower recidivism rates compared to pre-FSA releases. The August CJJ report showed FSA releases had a 37% lower recidivism rate than similarly situated individuals pre-FSA. Those early numbers, however, did not distinguish between recidivism due to new criminal activity and technical violations of supervision rules.

The author of the update, “Technically Speaking, Accounting for Technical Violations in First Step Act Recidivism,” also wrote the original analysis. He is Dr. Avinash Bhati, a data scientist who has developed and validated many pretrial and post-adjudication risk assessment instruments. Bhati used newly available information that includes recidivism outcomes for the 29,946 people released under the FSA between 2020 and 2022. He used that data to separate technical violations from new crimes and discovered the following meaningful data points.

Thirty-one percent of all reported recidivism for people released under the FSA was due to technical violations, like missing a meeting with a probation officer or failing a drug test. After factoring out the technical violations, the new crime recidivism rate for those released under the FSA’s provision is 8.5% (down from the original 12.4%). That percentage translates to an estimated 2,885 for new crimes over three years—1,445 fewer than previously estimated. That 8.5% also accounts for a mere 0.014% of national arrests—even fewer than initially estimated.

Bhati draws several conclusions from his second analysis of FSA recidivism data. First, that technical violations significantly inflate initial recidivism numbers for the FSA. Secondly, that the new crime recidivism rate is lower than pre-FSA levels, but further research is needed for a definitive evaluation. Lastly, that this updated information gives a more complete picture of the FSA’s impact on reintegration and public safety.

Bhati identified two constraints in his analysis. Data limitations prevent a comparison of technical violations between people released under the FSA and a group of people with similar risk levels and time since release from federal prisons prior to the FSA. Additionally, detailed individual-level data are needed to determine whether different provisions of the FSA change the relative risk of recidivism stemming from new criminal activity versus recidivism attributable to technical violations. Bhati also noted in the previous recidivism analysis in August that individual level data is necessary to carry out a thorough evaluation.  


Source: Council on Criminal Justice

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