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Making it Count: What Policymakers Everywhere Can Learn From Vermont’s Experience Improving How They Tracked Recidivism

By Matthew Schwarzfeld, Public Affairs Manager, Council of State Governments Justice Center

In his successful 2010 campaign for the governor’s office of Vermont, then-Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin declared a “war on recidivism.” The candidate argued that the increase in Vermont’s spending on corrections — from four percent of state general funds in 1990 to ten percent of general funds in 2008—was driven by what appeared to be an alarmingly high recidivism rate.

“When you have 50 to 70 percent of the people re-offending, you know you’re losing the battle,” now-Governor Shumlin told reporters in September 2010.

Governor Shumlin, DOC Commissioner Pallito

Governor Shumlin addresses a group of reporters, with DOC Commissioner Andy Pallito in the background (Photo credit: Flickr).

Shumlin based his 50 to 70 percent estimate of Vermont’s recidivism rate on data prepared by the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC) in its annual reports to the legislature. But this particular recidivism figure — widely touted not just by Shumlin, but also other gubernatorial candidates, legislators, DOC officials, and the media—struck some observers as confusing, perhaps even problematic. The figure was considerably higher than the national average, which seemed incongruous in light of Vermont’s low crime rate. Furthermore, the fact that DOC reported a broad 50 to 70 percent range left many Vermonters unclear about the actual rate.

Vermont is not alone in struggling to understand re-arrest, reconviction, and re-incarceration rates among people released from its state prisons. Policymakers in many states have experienced difficulty defining how to measure recidivism, setting up reliable tracking systems, and tracking trends from one year to another.1 At a recent national forum on reentry and recidivism reduction for legislators, judicial leaders, and governors’ staff from all 50 states, policymakers shared their frustrations in acquiring a clear understanding of how recidivism rates have changed in their states from year to year.

“Recidivism is a basic indicator of what’s going on in a state’s criminal justice system and the criminal patterns of people being released from prison. If the correctional system can’t report a reliable recidivism rate on a regular basis, policymakers will lack a good understanding of a very basic measure on which to design policy,” said Dr. Tony Fabelo, Director of Research for the Council of State Governments Justice Center. “Vermont had the right data—but it was buried in long reports, confusing and hard to understand, and not always presented consistently from year to year.”

Vermont State Senator Susan Bartlett, who at the time chaired the Appropriations Committee and now serves on Governor Shumlin’s cabinet overseeing the administration’s efforts to reduce corrections spending, noticed Vermont’s recidivism rate appeared high. “It bothered us how high the number seemed compared to other states”—between 10 and 20 percentage points higher than the national recidivism rate of around 40 percent, established by Pew in its 2010 study.

This was particularly odd, Bartlett and others felt, in light of the fact that Vermont’s crime rate stood as the second lowest in the nation and hadn’t changed for over a decade. “There was a moment when we said maybe we weren’t asking the right questions,” Bartlett said.

Adding to the confusion, DOC reported multiple recidivism measures. Sometimes the department reported the rate of reconviction (52 percent), and other times it reported the rate of “relodging” (66 percent). These figures, along with hundreds of other statistics, were provided in DOC’s annual report, a 300-plus-page document.

“The fact that DOC reported multiple rates caused a lot of confusion for legislators,” said Senator Richard Sears (D-Bennington District), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Joint Legislative Corrections Oversight Committee. “The problem wasn’t that they didn’t present enough statistics, but rather the opposite: they gave us too much data and we didn’t know what to pull out and focus on.”

Vermont State Senator Richard Sears

Vermont State Senator Richard Sears (D-Bennington District), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Joint Legislative Corrections Oversight Committee (Source: CSG Justice Center).

Without a reliable and generally agreed-upon way of measuring the state’s recidivism rate, legislators lacked a baseline to track their progress over time.

“It’s really hard making policy if you don’t have good data to base it on,” Senator Sears said. “It meant we couldn’t say what programs were working and where to invest money. Without data, you’re really just taking a stab in the dark.”

Legislators and DOC officials asked the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center to examine the state’s recidivism measure to determine whether it was reliable, and to recommend a routine and clear process for DOC to report the rate.

CSG Justice Center researchers found that Vermont’s rate was inflated because it counted any instance in which a person returned to a correctional facility in its recidivist count.2 In its reconviction rate (51 percent), DOC counted people reconvicted for minor offenses that do not carry prison time, whereas other states tend to include only individuals reconvicted and sentenced to prison for over one year. In its relodging rate (66 percent), DOC captured every individual returning to a state facility, including individuals who were sent to prison for short-term stays for violating their terms of parole as well as people who had been furloughed and then returned to prison for violating the conditions of the furlough program.

“We didn’t perceive that we weren’t measuring recidivism like other states,” said Bartlett. “We were so close to the issue that we couldn’t see that what we were missing was how we were looking at it and how we counted our data.”

With assistance from Justice Center researchers, Vermont legislators and corrections officials established a recidivism measure for the state, using a definition that is comparable to definitions used in other states. They will now count people incarcerated for a year or more who return to prison within three years for a new conviction or for a violation of supervision, with the new incarceration lasting a minimum of 90 days.3

State lawmakers took the added step of defining this recidivism measure in statute. Picking up on the Governor’s campaign proposal, Senator Sears, along with House leaders, championed the “War on Recidivism Act” (S.108). (The bill also provides various measures to reduce recidivism among nonviolent, low-risk offenders.) Signed into law by the Governor in April 2011, the War on Recidivism Act required that that DOC would report the simplified recidivism data to the legislature monthly.

Vermont is one of several states in which the legislature has codified a definition of recidivism. Texas passed a mandate in 1989, and Connecticut in 2005. These statutes define what constitutes recidivism, specify the follow-up period, and establish data collection protocols and requirements.

“Once a state reaches an agreement on what constitutes recidivism and how to measure it, policymakers now have a developing baseline that allows them to compare year-to-year rates in a ‘apples-to-apples’ way,” said Dr. Fabelo. “Vermont now has a clear recidivism measure that everyone understands, and a system in place to make sure that DOC reports it regularly and consistently. As policymakers design new measures to reduce reoffending and re-incarceration in the short- and long-term, having a consistent measure will prove very important.”

Using the new measure, policymakers learned Vermont’s recidivism rate was actually lower than the national average. Only 37 percent of people released within three years were “relodged” for over 90 days, and only 17 percent for over a year.

“By identifying who was actually recidivating, we can now examine the reasons they’re recidivating. This allows us to design an appropriate legislative response to address that specific population,” said Michelle Childs, Legislative Council for Senator Sears.

The War on Recidivism Act also instructed the Joint Committee on Corrections Oversight to work with DOC to establish one- and two-year recidivism reduction goals based on the revised baseline figure calculated with the new measure.

“We’ve always invested in recidivism reduction programs,” said DOC Commissioner Andy Pallito. “Now we can set goals to decrease recidivism by a specific percentage and free up money for reinvestment in other programs.” According to Pallito, reducing recidivism is “the end goal of the Shumlin administration.” By tracking recidivism from year to year, “we can now know for sure that we’re making progress towards that goal.”

  1. In its 2010 national recidivism study, the Pew Center on the States encountered 17 states (Vermont included) that were unable to generate recidivism data for the study’s two analysis periods (1999 to 2002 and 2004 to 2007).
  2. Vermont is one of six states in the country with a unified correctional system—meaning that DOC operates all of the state’s correctional facilities, including those that would be considered local or county jails in other states. Therefore, DOC had access to local jail data that other state departments of corrections generally don’t—and DOC included this data in its count.
  3. A 90-day threshold ensures that Vermont only counts people whose supervision was revoked, rather than people sanctioned with a short-term jail stay.