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Report Underscores Need for Sentencing Reform

WASHINGTON (CN) - Nearly half of the people released from federal prisons in 2005 were rearrested within eight years, a U.S. Sentencing Commission report released last week found.

Of those rearrested in that time span, roughly 31 percent were reconvicted and more than 24 percent found their way back into a jail cell, according to the report.

The report studied more than 25,000 federal offenders who reentered society in 2015 either through release or probation and reveals links between recidivism rates and an offender's criminal history and age.

Those released before their 21st birthday were rearrested more than two-thirds of the time, while those released after turning 60 were arrested again 16 percent of the time.

"The commission found that, consistent with existing research, two factors - offenders' criminal histories and their ages at the time of release into the community - were most closely associated with differences in recidivism rates," the report said.

The report mostly confirms other research on recidivism but the timing is interesting, according to Dr. Stefan LoBuglio, director of the National Reentry Resource Center.

"I think the interesting piece of this report is that it comes at a time when the Federal Bureau of Prisons is undergoing a reexamination of itself," LoBuglio said.

Prisons across the country are looking at programs that can help reduce the risk that newly released prisoners will end up back in trouble with the law soon after they leave, LoBuglio said.

LoBuglio specifically pointed to a group of programs known as cognitive behavioral treatment programs, which seek to change how people think in order to alter their behavior.

A May 2007 report from the National Institute of Corrections describes cognitive behavior treatment programs as teaching prisoners "more positive behaviors to replace their old ways of getting through life," while also helping them understand the thinking "that led them to choose negative actions in the past."

Other efforts like educational and vocational programs in prisons can also help reduce recidivism rates, LoBuglio said.

Cybele Kotonias, a research associate with the Urban Institute, added that programs need to be designed with the people they are aiming to help in mind.

"Recidivism reduction programs are most successful when they're tailored to the specific needs of the individual," Kotonias said.

But it can be hard to pinpoint exactly what programs work in reducing recidivism rates among inmates and to match people with programs that suit them best.

One issue is prisoners who are least likely to recidivate are the ones most likely to seek out programs aimed to reduce recidivism. This leaves the people who need the most help transitioning into life outside of prison the least prepared to do so, LoBuglio said.

The report suggests probationary sentences might play a role in reducing recidivism, though maybe for reasons that might help design reforms meant to curb recidivism.

While more than 52 percent of people in the study who were released directly from prison were rearrested within eight years, just 35 percent of those released to a probationary sentence suffered the same fate, according to the report.

Kotonias said putting people in a stable environment when they return home can help them better cope with the pressures that await them in their communities.

But as LoBuglio pointed out, the difference in rearrest rates between those released on probationary sentences and those released directly into the community might simply be because judges only grant probation to people who are at low risk of recidivating.

While the findings in the commission's findings suggest a high risk of recidivism in the federal inmate population, the report notes state prisons have an even larger problem. More than three quarters of state prisoners released from prison in 2005 were rearrested, with 28 percent of those landing back in prison, according to the report and the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

LoBuglio said a good portion of this discrepancy between state and federal prison recidivism rates is explained by a younger state prison population that doesn't face the harsh repercussions of being arrested again that federal offenders do.

"Many offenders recidivated more than once," U.S. Sentencing Commission Chair Judge Patti B. Saris said in a statement announcing the report's findings. "Knowing how often offenders recidivate and for what crimes can provide important information to policymakers about how best to address overcapacity of the prisons, to protect the public safety, and to promote effective reentry with rehabilitation."

Though the report suggests recidivism is still high, LoBuglio said researchers, lawmakers and prison practitioners are moving in the right direction to help keep people who leave prisons from returning.

The commission's study of recidivism comes at a time of increased support of criminal justice reform among lawmakers. A bipartisan criminal-justice reform bill sponsored by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has been working its way through the Senate in the last year and contains provisions requiring the Bureau of Prisons to create programs and activities aimed at reducing recidivism among prisoners.

Though the bill has been stalled of late, Grassley said at a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing he is hopeful he has a "sound" agreement in place that would allow the Senate to take up the criminal-justice bill soon.

"This is a unique opportunity that I think we're taking full advantage of in changing our correctional systems," LoBuglio said.

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