To Measure or Not to Measure? the "Recidivism Dilemma"

By Stoodley, Bartlett | Corrections Today, August 2010 | Go to article overview

To Measure or Not to Measure? the "Recidivism Dilemma"


Stoodley, Bartlett, Corrections Today


All across the country, juvenile justice agencies are judged to be successful or not based on recidivism rates that indicate the extent to which youths commit crimes after receiving juvenile justice services. Because of the importance of this measure, the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators (CJCA), with support from the Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), has identified three goals related to recidivism measurement: 1) Reduce re-offending; 2) Increase support for evidence-based programs (both proven and promising); and 3) Support the continuous quality improvement of programs and systems of services.

CJCA, the membership organization of state juvenile correctional directors, established a Recidivism Working Group, comprised of directors and researchers, to develop and recommend to the full membership standards for measuring recidivism. This work was completed and a final report was disseminated in late 2009. (1)

Background

The number of juveniles discharged from correctional and treatment facilities each year has grown significantly from decades past, creating concerns about how to effectively prevent their return to custody. Compounding difficulties inherent in large numbers of juveniles reentering communities is the recidivism rate for these returning juveniles. Rates of juvenile re-offending can be as high as 66 percent when measured by re-arrest and as high as 33 percent when measured by re-adjudications and/or reconvictions within a few years of release. (2) Accurately estimating a national juvenile recidivism rate is problematic. Currently, the most accurate nationwide juvenile recidivism statistics may be found by aggregating state rates of juvenile recidivism. However, as evidenced by the varying recidivism rates, recidivism findings can differ greatly depending on how recidivism is defined and measured.

This is not a new concern. The National Advisory Committee on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals observed the following in 1976:

A major problem in research on criminal justice is the absence of standardized definitions ... The confusion over definitions has not only impeded communication among researchers and practitioners, but also has hindered comparisons and replications of research studies.

Program Effectiveness, Accountability and Cost

It is uncommon to conduct a program impact evaluation in juvenile justice without measuring recidivism. Despite challenges presented by definitional ambiguity and misuse of recidivism data, a program's recidivism rate is generally regarded as the most critical indicator of program success. Valid comparisons of programs or systems require comparability of populations whose data are being used to calculate outcome measures such as recidivism. Aside from experimental designs in which similar youths are assigned to different conditions, knowing the risk level (probability of re-offending) of youths in comparison groups makes it possible to reduce the impact of some of the many factors that may explain differences in recidivism rates.

Other Important Considerations

Every measure of recidivism based on an official record always involves both the behavior or alleged behavior of a youth and a formal decision made by at least one official of the justice system.

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To Measure or Not to Measure? the "Recidivism Dilemma"
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