On Tuesday February 21, 2017 the US Sentencing Commission quietly released a report on “Recidivism among Federal Drug Trafficking Offenders.”
The return of heroin in the Black community, which was the scourge of America’s cities in the 1960s and 70s, has brought the Federal Sentencing Guidelines squarely before our community once again.
The Commission watched a group of 10,888 federal drug trafficking offenders who were released in 2005. This number represents about half of all the men and women released that year. They studied them for 8 years to see if they were going to recidivate.
Recidivism is defined as getting re-arrested and convicted for a felony, misdemeanor or “technical” violation of the conditions of supervised release or parole.
It’s important to consider that the Commission believes that sending a man or woman to prison serves three purposes:
1. To deter people from committing new crime. In other words, if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.
2. To incapacitate the criminal. You cannot commit crime or hurt other people if you are sitting in a prison cell.
3. To rehabilitate. That is, to make you a better person by giving you new skills to earn a living and changing your opinion about criminal activity.
With that in mind, here are the key findings from the report:
• Over the eight-year follow-up period, one-half (50.0%) of federal drug trafficking offenders released in 2005 recidivated by being rearrested for a new crime or rearrested for a violation of supervision conditions.
• Crack cocaine offenders recidivated at the highest rate (60.8%) of any drug type, while powder cocaine offenders recidivated at the lowest rate (43.8%).
• Of those drug trafficking offenders who recidivated, the median time from release to the first recidivism event was 25 months.
• Nearly one-fourth (23.8%) of drug trafficking offenders who recidivated had assault as their most serious new charge followed by drug trafficking and public order offenses.
• A federal drug trafficking offender’s criminal history was closely associated with the likelihood of recidivism. Recidivism rates ranged from 35.4 percent for offenders with zero criminal history points to 77.1 percent of offenders in the highest Criminal History Category of VI.
• A federal drug trafficking offender’s age at time of release into the community was also closely associated with likelihood of recidivism. Drug trafficking offenders released prior to age 21 had the highest recidivism rate, 65.0 percent, while drug trafficking offenders over 60 years old at the time of release had the lowest recidivism rate of 16.5 percent.
• The strong associations of both criminal history and age with recidivism rates are tied to certain other findings. There was an inverse association between the base offense level under the guidelines (which is determined
by the drug type and quantity) and recidivism rates. Similarly, there was an inverse association between both the presence and length of a statutory drug mandatory minimum penalty and recidivism rates. The longer sentences received by the more serious drug trafficking offenders result in older ages at release, which is a likely factor affecting this result.
• There was little apparent association between the length of imprisonment and recidivism for drug trafficking offenders overall. However, once Criminal History Category is accounted for, length of imprisonment is associated with lower rates of recidivism. Again, longer sentences result in older ages at release, which combined with criminal history differences, are likely factors affecting this result.
• Federal drug trafficking offenders had a substantially lower recidivism rate compared to a cohort of state drug offenders released into the community in 2005 and tracked by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Over two-thirds (76.9%) of state drug offenders released from state prison were rearrested within five years, compared to 41.9 percent of federal drug trafficking offenders released from prison over the same five-year period.
Based on the fact that nearly half of all the men and women released in 2005 committed new crime, should the Commission increase prison sentences or introduce some alternatives to incarceration? What are your thoughts?
View the full 149 page report here.
Herman Garner is the author of Wavering Between Extremes: One Man’s Pursuit of the American Dream. Read excerpts here.