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Stuck on Repeat
Should we welcome news of a decline in recidivism?
A new report from the state Department of Corrections hails a decline in recidivism rates statewide since 1990, but the actual number of "recidivists" has trended upward due to the state's stubbornly high prison population.

The study [pdf] of 125,000 offenders tracked over a period of 20 years is the first in a series planned to look at the issue of prison inmates who commit new crimes (or probation violations) within one, two or three years of release.

The DOC says the rate at which prisoners re-offended within three years fell from 43.1% in 1990 to 32.4% in 2007. (The rate of re-offending within a year followed a similar course, from 22% in 1990 to 14.5% in 2009.)

At the same time, the raw number of "recidivists" went up from 1,218 in 1990, in the analysis of three-year rates, to 2,761 in 2007.

For many decades, Wisconsin's prison population rose with extreme regularity, beginning with the construction of the state's first correctional facility in Waupun in 1851. Between fiscal years 2007 and 2010, it declined for the very first time, from a peak of about 24,000 to 22,171, in 2010. In recent years, the population has held steady at about 23,0000, as the state spends about $1.3 billion a year on incarceration.

So, the rate of recidivism is down, and perhaps because of a change in how the state responds to probation violations. In 2010, DOC officials said they were moving away from a "zero tolerance" approach that automatically returned violators to a state facility, where they would have been counted as recidivists for the purposes of the department's new study.

And having a larger denominator -- a larger number of people being held and subsequently released from prison -- has certainly helped, too.

(illustration by Adrian Palomo)

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