Recent Research Suggests...

By IAIN MURRAY, Special to UPI  |  June 13, 2002 at 7:49 PM
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WASHINGTON, June 13 (UPI) -- Recidivism rates in America are criminal, according to a new study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Researchers looked at the fate of prisoners released in 1994 and discovered that over two-thirds of them (68 percent) had been rearrested for a crime within three years of their release.

The last time officials performed such a detailed study, when they looked at the behavior of prisoners released in 1983, they found that 62 percent had been rearrested.

It is hard, however, to make a fair comparison between the two figures. Each study was merely a snapshot of released prisoners' behavior, and we have no idea whether 1983 was a good year and 1994 a bad year. We do not know whether prisoners released in the years between re-offended at the rate they did in 1983, or whether 1994 actually represents an improvement on 1989. In short, we cannot simply infer a trend out of these two numbers.

Claiming that the higher recidivism rate shown in the new study is evidence that "the increased number of criminals put behind bars has not been an effective deterrent to crime," as Fox Butterfield did in The New York Times on June 2, is even more of a leap away from the evidence.

The number of serious violent crimes actually decreased from 3,455,000 in 1983 to 2,186,000 in 2000. Property crime has seen an even more precipitous decline (from 428 crimes per 1,000 households in 1983 to 178 in 2000). Over the same time period, however, the number of prisoners tripled to over 2.5 million. Most criminologists agree that the massive decrease in crime over the last decade is due at least in part to the "incapacitation effect" of having so many criminals in jail.

Few other western countries have gone down this route. Britain, for example, has seen its crime rates explode to a degree where Britain is now more dangerous than the United States in every major crime except murder (and even there the gap is narrowing).

But where the rate of incarceration has been increasing in the United States, it has been declining in Britain. A comparative study of the two systems by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and Cambridge University suggested that increasing the rate at which criminals are punished does indeed have a significant deterrent effect on criminals.

Nevertheless, if there is a valid inference to be drawn from the new study, it's that our corrections system is failing to rehabilitate prisoners. It is, however, always worth looking at other countries to see whether the glass is half-empty or half-full.

The new study shows that 36 percent of prisoners released in 1994 had been again convicted of an offense within 2 years. In the United Kingdom, where there are far fewer in jail, over half of released prisoners are convicted again in the same time period. We may not be doing a good enough job at keeping released convicts on the straight and narrow, but we're doing a better job than many.

It is a cardinal rule of social science research that "the plural of anecdote is not data." This simple tenet is repeatedly ignored by the media, however. "The Early Show" on CBS and NBC's "Today Show," for instance, devoted quite some time on June 11 to the expected phenomenon of a baby boom nine months after 9/11. They readily found physicians to interview around the country who attested confidently that they were seeing an increase in births and were expecting more.

However, you can also readily find physicians around the country who will testify that their emergency rooms are busier during full moons than otherwise. Yet whenever anyone has performed scientific studies of this phenomenon they have found no difference in ER activity whatever the phase of the moon.

This sort of thing needs to be examined objectively after the fact. Previous baby booms that have been predicted after other disasters, or even after power outages that deprived people of other entertainment, have normally either failed to occur or were statistically insignificant. Kudos, then, to The New York Times for having the courage to point this out on June 11th.

Bad math seems to go hand in hand with junk science. A new study by Inform, an environmental concern organization, worries about the hazards that might be caused by Americans throwing away cellular phones. Their spokesman claimed that 130 million phones might be thrown away every year. According to recent surveys, only about 160 million Americans own mobile phones, so that's a turnover rate bound to bring a smile to the faces of Nokia shareholders. The spokesman went on to claim that that figure represented 65,000 tons of waste. Inform obviously believes that the average weight of each cell phone is 1 pound. In fact, the average phone today weighs about 3 ounces. The waste estimate is therefore off by about 500 percent. But what's a few thousand tons when the future of the planet is at stake?

Iain Murray is Director of Research at STATS - the Statistical Assessment Service - a Washington DC-based nonprofit nonpartisan public policy organization (see

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