The US Has the Highest Recidivism Rates In the World—Here’s Why

UPDATED: May 15, 2024
PUBLISHED: March 25, 2024
Brian Hamilton teaching class of prisoners wanting to be entrepreneurs to reduce recidivism rates

More than 1.2 million people were incarcerated in the U.S. in 2021, according to the most recent data available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. The U.S. also leads the world in recidivism—when a person convicted of a crime has another encounter with the justice system. 

Recidivism statistics in the U.S. are bleak. A 2021 Bureau of Justice Statistics study found that 66% of people released from prison in 24 different states in 2008 were re-arrested within three years. At the decade mark, 82% had been re-arrested. Many of these arrests led to reincarceration: parole and probation violations and new sentences led 61% of prisoners released in 2008 to return to prison within a decade

Although these rates are dropping, rearrest and reincarceration rates are notably high. Young people are more likely to be reincarcerated; however, the severity of the crime for which the individual was originally convicted had no effect on recidivism rates

Reasons for recidivism rates

These recidivism statistics are overdetermined. Numerous factors feed the cyclical carceral system, including lack of education, lack of housing and employment opportunities, substance use and mental health issues among returned citizens. Even technical violations—these types of violations include not checking in on time, using a substance and not being at home if required to stay under house arrest—can return people to prison. 

Experts say the system’s foundation sets up justice-involved individuals to fail. “The tip of the spear is the criminal justice system and how we over-punish and under rehabilitate,” says Zeus Luby, director of programming for Atlanta-based Rehabilitation Enables Dreams, a restorative justice non-profit. 

Luby, who now also works as a life coach and speaker, had his own brush with the justice system—one that took him years to clear. He was arrested for possession of a deadly weapon within 100 feet of a school. He says the “weapon” was a knife the young entrepreneur used as a pry tool in his mobile mechanic business. 

Luby’s case was moved to misdemeanor court, but a scheduling error kept it on the felony court’s calendar. Without knowing it, Luby missed his felony court date—a bench warrant was issued for his arrest and a felony conviction landed on his record. “I languished as a convicted felon for seven years,” he says. When his record was ultimately cleared, he felt, “a thousand pounds had been lifted off of me. It felt amazing.” However, by the time his record was expunged, he’d struggled to find work for years and turned to entrepreneurship to support his daughter as a single father.

Employment for ex-prisoners

Returned citizens face weighty unemployment rates. Around 60% of them remain unemployed a year after their release. Background checks that reveal their arrests and convictions often prove impassable blocks to gaining reliable employment even if they’re otherwise qualified for a position. Two National Institute of Justice studies found that the presence of a criminal record decreases the likelihood of a job callback or offer by approximately 50%. 

In his past, Luby hase filled out hundreds of job applications with no response. Even if he interviewed for a position, “when they had a chance to experience my intelligence and my character, once the conviction popped up, no one said, ‘He seemed like a good kid, let me call him back and find out more. There was no humanity. No one gave me that grace. It was only when my brother stepped in that I got an opportunity.”  

Luby says employers lack understanding about what certain charges mean. “If they see you’ve been arrested, a lot of employers won’t hire you,” he says, “but anyone can be arrested and get vindicated.”   

Background checks for ex-prisoners

Background checks make finding stable housing a challenge, too. Without a regular paycheck, the housing picture becomes even more complex. Homelessness is up to 11 times more likely among returned citizens than the general population. Lack of housing and jobs make returned citizens more likely re-offend. 

“If your opportunities are stifled, you start considering other options,” Luby recalls. “I never wanted to harm my community, but, at my worst, I considered doing illegal stuff. Now, I considered robbing drug dealers, but I was still in a criminal mindset. If you can make a beam of steel like me bend, you can make a blade of grass lie flat.”

The return home

Organizations such as Rehabilitation Enables Dreams ease re-entry. RED targets 17- to 28-year-olds convicted of non-violent crimes and provides them one-on-one mentorship and a year-long restorative justice curriculum that covers topics such as emotional intelligence, career readiness, financial literacy, entrepreneurship and health and wellness. The organization works with district attorneys’ offices to seal the records of their graduates to give them a genuine fresh start. 

“There aren’t support systems there when people get home,” says Kevin McCracken, chief growth officer of The Last Mile, another nonprofit fighting recidivism and activating the potential of justice-impacted individuals through education and technological training. The Last Mile trains incarcerated individuals in coding and audio-visual production within the California prison system. 

Upon release, program participants have marketable skills that position them to earn jobs and fill employment gaps in the tech industry. “We have a strong re-entry program that offers interview skills, resume writing and financial literacy,” McCracken says. “We’re doing our best to identify individuals with substance use issues. We also offer a laptop program and give them a tool that will directly affect their ability to get a job.” The Last Mile graduates experience a less than 4% recidivism rate. 

Growing evidence suggests easier job access reduces recidivism across the country. The Council of Criminal Justice observes, “Federal and state investments in reentry programs have been substantial in recent years, as have private sector initiatives to hire people with criminal records; these efforts and others may have reduced reoffending rates.” 

A global perspective and possible solutions

Countries around the world experience lower recidivism rates than the U.S. Experts believe this is, in part, due to incarcerated individuals in those countries serving shorter prison times

The Sentencing Project report, “A New Lease on Life,” says, “Scandinavian countries are widely regarded as being on the opposite end of the punishment spectrum as the U.S.” Not only do those countries have shorter maximum imprisonment times, they also regularly allow government clemency for returned citizens.  

Expunging records 

Life after jail is full of roadblocks. Experts like Luby and McCracken say sealing or expunging records for returned citizens is vital to providing a path toward success—and away from recidivism. McCracken’s assertion is based on his personal journey. He says he spent most of his 20s in and out of county jails addicted to heroin. He’s 25 years away from his last encounter with the justice system, which led to his placement in a two-year-long treatment facility. “Because I went to rehab instead of prison, I was eligible for expungement,” McCracken says. “After five years, I got my record expunged. It was a springboard for me to have a better life. No longer could I be seen by a potential employer or potential landlord as my worst mistake. 

“We have the saying ‘If you do the crime, you do the time.’ But that doesn’t apply on the back end,” he continues. “If I’ve done the time, why am I still being labeled as a felon? When do I get released from that stigma and title?” 

Photo courtesy of Brian Hamilton Foundation.