To measure or not to measure? The “recidivism dilemma”.

By | February 9, 2014

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.