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USSC Study: The Effects of Aging on Recidivism Among Federal Offenders

“Recidivism” is a term used to describe a person’s relapse into criminal behavior, often after the person receives sanctions or undergoes intervention for a previous crime.  Recidivism is usually measured by criminal acts that resulted in rearrest, reconviction, and/or reincarceration of the offender over a specified period of time.

According to the National Institute of Justice, “the prevalence of offending tends to increase from late childhood, peak in the teenage years (from 15 to 19) and then decline in the early 20s.”  National arrest data collected by the FBI since 1930 has consistently supported this correlation between age and crime.  In other words, the data from roughly the last 100 years shows that a person is less likely to commit a criminal offense as he or she ages.

The United States Sentencing Commission (“Commission”) has been studying recidivism since 1984.  Its latest research is contained in a report describing the effects of aging on recidivism.  Numerous recidivism studies have documented that older offenders are at lower risk for reoffending, and this study was no different.  Among the key findings:

  1. Older offenders are substantially less likely than younger offenders to recidivate following release.
  1. Age and criminal history exerted a strong influence on recidivism. For offenders in Criminal History Category I (those with minimal or no prior criminal history), the rearrest rate ranges from 53% for offenders younger than age 30 at the time of release to 11.3% for offenders age 60 or older.  For offenders in Criminal History Category VI (the highest criminal history category), the rearrest rate ranges from 89.7% for offenders younger than age 30 at the time of release to 37.7% for offenders age 60 and older.
  1. Further, education level influences recidivism. College graduates have a lower rearrest rate than offenders who have not completed high school, regardless of age.
  1. Older offenders are less likely to recidivate after release than younger offenders who have served similar sentences, regardless of the length of sentence imposed.
  1. Younger offenders with sentences of up to six months generally have lower rearrest rates than younger offenders with longer sentences.
  1. At every age group, federal offenders have a substantially lower recidivism rate than state offenders.

For certain major offense types, the type of offense the person had commits has a strong effect on recidivism, across all age groups.  Generally speaking, firearms offenders have a substantially higher rearrest rate than fraud offenders.  (And robbery offenders, unlike all other offense types, do not see rearrest rates decline as they age – they increase!)

The Commission studied over 25,000 federal offenders who were released into the community in calendar year 2005.  It found that younger offenders are more likely to be rearrested than older offenders, are rearrested faster than older offenders, and commit more serious offenses after release than older offenders. Male offenders have a higher rearrest rate than female offenders in every age category.

Offenders in the lowest base offense level group have a modestly higher recidivism rate across most age categories than those with higher base offense levels.  This is counterintuitive: it means that the less significant a person’s offense, the more likely he is to reoffend.

The Commission also found that offenders who receive a prison-only sentence have a higher rearrest rate than offenders with a different form of sentence.  This suggests that giving a sentence of probation or a fine is more likely to curtail recidivism, rather than enhance it.

The Commission’s study concludes by noting that older offenders are “substantially” less likely to recidivate following release than younger offenders, and those who do recidivate have less serious recidivism offenses on average.

The Commission will issue additional reports on recidivism in the coming months.  A copy of its current report is available here: https://www.ussc.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/research-and-publications/research-publications/2017/20171207_Recidivism-Age.pdf

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