All across the country, juvenile justice agencies are judged to be
successful or not based on recidivism rates that indicate the extent to
which youths commit crimes after receiving juvenile justice services.
Because of the importance of this measure, the Council of Juvenile
Correctional Administrators (CJCA), with support from the Office of
Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), has identified three
goals related to recidivism measurement: 1) Reduce re-offending; 2)
Increase support for evidence-based programs (both proven and
promising); and 3) Support the continuous quality improvement of
programs and systems of services.
CJCA, the membership organization of state juvenile correctional
directors, established a Recidivism Working Group, comprised of
directors and researchers, to develop and recommend to the full
membership standards for measuring recidivism. This work was completed
and a final report was disseminated in late 2009. (1)
The number of juveniles discharged from correctional and treatment
facilities each year has grown significantly from decades past, creating
concerns about how to effectively prevent their return to custody.
Compounding difficulties inherent in large numbers of juveniles
reentering communities is the recidivism rate for these returning
juveniles. Rates of juvenile re-offending can be as high as 66 percent
when measured by re-arrest and as high as 33 percent when measured by
re-adjudications and/or reconvictions within a few years of release. (2)
Accurately estimating a national juvenile recidivism rate is
problematic. Currently, the most accurate nationwide juvenile recidivism
statistics may be found by aggregating state rates of juvenile
recidivism. However, as evidenced by the varying recidivism rates,
recidivism findings can differ greatly depending on how recidivism is
defined and measured.
This is not a new concern. The National Advisory Committee on
Criminal Justice Standards and Goals observed the following in 1976:
A major problem in research on criminal justice is the absence of
standardized definitions … The confusion over definitions has not only
impeded communication among researchers and practitioners, but also has
hindered comparisons and replications of research studies.
Program Effectiveness, Accountability and Cost
It is uncommon to conduct a program impact evaluation in juvenile
justice without measuring recidivism. Despite challenges presented by
definitional ambiguity and misuse of recidivism data, a program’s
recidivism rate is generally regarded as the most critical indicator of
program success. Valid comparisons of programs or systems require
comparability of populations whose data are being used to calculate
outcome measures such as recidivism. Aside from experimental designs in
which similar youths are assigned to different conditions, knowing the
risk level (probability of re-offending) of youths in comparison groups
makes it possible to reduce the impact of some of the many factors that
may explain differences in recidivism rates.
Other Important Considerations
Every measure of recidivism based on an official record always
involves both the behavior or alleged behavior of a youth and a formal
decision made by at least one official of the justice system. Therefore,
consideration needs to be given to the following areas: deciding on the
appropriate measure; selecting the best source of information; measuring
the time to recidivism; counting all cases; differentiating among
offenses; and identifying data reporting options. Moreover, since
jurisdictions may employ different measures, it is preferable to record
more than one measure of recidivism.
Because offender characteristics can affect rates of reoffending,
recidivism data are more useful for comparison when those
characteristics can be accounted for. Differences among the states and
any number of societal factors will also shape recidivism rates,
resulting in jurisdictional differences.
CJCA believes that helping juvenile justice agencies communicate
clearly about recidivism will require the use of a common language,
common definitions and systematic measurement. Such standardization of
definitions and measures of recidivism will increase the juvenile
justice agency’s capacity to learn about effective programs and
practices, to implement effective programs, to allocate resources in a
cost-effective manner, to help protect the public from future criminal
acts and to build support for collaborative problem solving though
information sharing and strategic planning.
In consultation with its members and with assistance from OJJDP,
CJCA is exploring ways to implement pilot programs focused on
standardized recidivism measurement consistent with CJCA’s white
paper on recidivism. (3) This set of standards for measuring recidivism
promises to create common data elements across state juvenile
correctional agencies. CJCA asserts that this work presents realistic
opportunities for improved practice, programs, resource allocation,
public safety and outcomes for youths.
Already, selected jurisdictions are using recommended methodologies
and the results are being evaluated on a preliminary basis. This work
will be ongoing for the next several years, as a comprehensive phased-in
plan for recidivism measurement is refined for use in jurisdictions that
may wish to participate.
CJCA Recidivism Measurement Working Group:
Bartlett Stoodley (Maine), Chair
Joyce Burrell (New York)
John Gomez (Colorado)
Russell Jennings (Kansas)
Dan Maldonado (Utah)
Albert Murray (Georgia)
Frank Peterman (Florida)
Robert Rosenbloom (Georgia)
Vincent Schiraldi (District of Columbia)
Bernard Warner (California)
Kim Godfrey (CJCA)
Liz Mengers (CJCA)
Philip Harris (CJCA)
(1) Harris, P.W., B. Lockwood and L. Mengers. 2009. A CJCA white
paper: Defining and measuring recidivism. Retrieved from
(2) Mears, D.P. and J. Travis. 2004. Youth development and reentry.
Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 2(1):3-20. Thousand Oaks, Calif.:
Sage Publications. (January). Bureau of Data and Research. 1999.
National comparisons from state recidivism studies. Tallahassee, Fla.:
Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.
(3) Harris, P.W., B. Lockwood and L. Mengers. 2009.
Bartlett Stoodley is associate commissioner for juvenile services
of the Maine Department of Corrections.