NOTE: This post has been updated as of 4/2 to incorporate additional research.
Researchers at the RAND Corporation have proposed a radical new approach to measuring recidivism risk that raises questions about decades of received truth about the prevalence of reoffending after people leave prison. At least since the 1990s, the Bureau of Justice Statistics has measured risk of recidivism at the time of a person’s last interaction with the justice system, when the statistical cohort includes many who are frequent participants in the criminal system as well as those for whom it is a one-time affair. As a result, employers and others tend to interpret background checks as overstating the risk posed by someone who in fact may have been living in the community for years without criminal incident, and is unlikely to become criminally involved again.
In Providing Another Chance: Resetting Recidivism Risk in Criminal Background Checks, Shawn Bushway and his RAND colleagues argue that risk should instead be measured at the time a background check is conducted, after an individual has had an opportunity to demonstrate their ability to reintegrate lawfully as well as their propensity to reoffend. They label this the “reset principle,” and argue that this more individualized approach to risk assessment promises to improve the predictive value of criminal background checks. In fact, they propose that it will “strengthen the case that people with convictions can, and usually do, change their ways.”
Coupled with other studies showing that the risk of recidivism depends on a variety of factors (e.g., age at time of offense), this new RAND study suggests that general “time to redemption” research should not be relied upon to predict future behavior of specific individuals.