Measuring Change: From Rates of Recidivism to Markers of Desistance

Cecelia M. Klingele | November 4, 2019

Reducing the incidence of crime is a primary task of the criminal justice system and one for which it rightly should be held accountable. The system’s success is frequently judged by the recidivism rates of those who are subject to various criminal justice interventions, from treatment programs to imprisonment. This Article suggests that, however popular, recidivism alone is a poor metric for gauging the success of criminal justice interventions or of those who participate in them. This is true primarily because recidivism is a binary measure, and behavioral change is a multi-faceted process. Accepting recidivism as a valid, stand-alone metric imposes on the criminal justice system a responsibility beyond its capacity, demanding that its success turn on transforming even the most serious and intractable of offenders into fully law-abiding citizens. Instead of measuring success by simple rates of recidivism, policymakers should seek more nuanced metrics. One such alternative is readily available: markers of desistance. Desistance, which in this context means the process by which individuals move from a life that is crime-involved to one that is not, is evidenced not just by whether a person re-offends but also by whether there are increasing intervals between offenses and patterns of de-escalating behavior. These easily obtainable metrics, which are already widely relied on by criminologists, can yield more nuanced information about the degree to which criminal justice interventions correlate with positive (or negative) life changes. They also resemble more closely the ways in which other fields that address behavioral change such as education attempt to measure change over time. Measuring the success of criminal justice interventions by reference to their effects on desistance would mean seeking evidence of progress, not perfection. Such an approach would allow criminal justice agencies to be held accountable for promoting positive change without asking them to do the impossible, thereby creating new pathways by which the criminal justice system could be recognized for achieving real and measurable progress in crime reduction.