Recidivism is now the guiding principle of punishment and has become the new hallmark of criminal justice reform, as reflected in the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s recidivism project. So far, the Commission has issued three reports in 2020 alone, which outline the parameters within which “safe” criminal justice reform can proceed. Yet the overly broad definition of “recidivism” and the focus on easily measurable and static risk factors, such as prior criminal record, create a feedback loop.
The Commission’s work should come with a warning label. Its recidivism studies should not be consumed on their own. Instead, they must be read in conjunction with U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services recidivism research, which includes data on the impact of programming, treatment, and services on reentry success. Yet, concerns about undercounting recidivism events drive the entire U.S. approach. Western European studies reflect different philosophies and values that explain some of the underlying reasons for the dramatically different imprisonment rates on the two sides of the Atlantic.
These recidivism studies raise also questions about the Commission’s role. Its ongoing preference for imprisonment indicates that it continues to consider itself the guardian of incarceration-driven guidelines. The studies reenforce the status quo and the Commission’s role in it. They threaten to propel us into data-driven selective incapacitation and continuously long prison terms for those with prior criminal records, all in the name of public safety.