Much of the national debate over criminal justice reform has centered on recidivism, or the rate at which ex-offenders commit additional crimes. Publishers, including MIT News, have questioned the effectiveness of prisons by claiming that “three out of every four individuals released from U.S. prisons are rearrested within five years.” This narrative was also popularized by the Obama White House, which published a study claiming American prisons are a “revolving door.” This is the idea that many offenders are cycling through prison again and again. But it’s a myth.
While it is true that the five-year reincarceration rates for prisoners who are released in a given year is around 50 percent, this statistic fails to show that two-thirds of all people who are incarcerated never return and that only one in 10 return more than once. The longer we believe the lie that most offenders are stuck in a prison-to-prison cycle, the more we do a disservice to the many ex-offenders who pose no risk to public safety.
Why is the recidivism data so misleading? Because there is a sampling error. The commonly cited Bureau of Justice Statistics' recidivism study only tracks people who are released from prison in a certain year. Therefore, the study population has an overrepresentation of repeat offenders. It is like going to a movie theater and asking attendees how likely they are to come back for another movie. The sample set is skewed and cannot be applied to the population of everyone who has seen a movie because “repeat attendees” are more likely to be at the theater in the first place.
Carefully distinguishing between different claims is vital here. There is a major difference between saying “50 percent of people released from prison in a given year are back in prison within five years” and “50 percent of all people released from prison are back in within five years.” The first claim is supported by the data, the second is not. Nearly 70 percent of people who go to prison never return, and an additional 20 percent return only once. And for those who do return, it is often because they violated terms of parole, not because they committed a new crime.
The revolving-door narrative adds to the stigma surrounding ex-offenders. When former President Barack Obama claimed that correctional facilities “train [prisoners] to become more hardened criminals,” he unwittingly perpetuated a “once a criminal, always a criminal” stereotype. To be fair, that there is a small percentage of criminals who are stuck in a prison-to-prison cycle is a genuine problem. But even though it is aimed at addressing real issues in the correctional system, rhetoric like Obama’s has created negative consequences for all people with criminal records. It has caused employers and state governments to overestimate the public safety risks that those with criminal records pose.
Today, nine out of 10 employers conduct criminal background checks on applicants. If they find any record, they are very hesitant to hire — even for jobs not requiring a college degree. This reluctance is exacerbated by the costly litigation employers could face if individuals reoffend under their watch.
Aside from employers, ex-offenders face additional work barriers from state governments. State licensing agencies across the country restrict ex-offenders from obtaining occupational and business licenses in many professions. But these strictures are often discriminatory. Half of states are allowed by law to deny applicants with records without considering their number of offenses, the time since their last offense, or how their crime relates to the occupation. Most states are not even required to consider applicants’ rehabilitation. On average, states have 123 mandatory bans or restrictions for felons working in certain industries and occupations.
The myriad of employment barriers faced by ex-offenders is convincing evidence that the U.S. has internalized the revolving-door myth. In reality, most ex-offenders avoid serious entanglement with the criminal justice system for the rest of their lives. Most comply with parole. Most offenders are only guilty of nonviolent, nonsexual crimes and, once they have lived crime-free for more than three to four years, they are no more likely to offend than the average person.
For the sake of the millions of ex-offenders who have moved on with their lives and atoned for their past mistakes, the public needs to abandon the myth that prisons have a revolving door.
Christian Barnard (@CBarnard33) is a writer and policy analyst based in Washington, D.C.
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