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New state prison report highlights rearrest and reincarceration trends

Press and Communications Office
Pennsylvania Department of Corrections
Pennsylvania's 23 state prisons and one "motivational boot camp" are scattered across the commonwealth.

Nearly two-thirds of people who leave state prisons are either arrested or end up back in jail within a three-year timeframe. And according to a recent report, one state facility and one county in Northeast Pennsylvania have the highest rates of people who reoffend.

In late August, The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PA DOC) released its first recidivism report in nine years, highlighting trends in the types of offenses and the demographic information about those who reoffend.

According to the 2022 report, Pennsylvania’s three-year overall recidivism rate has hovered around 64% for the last 16 years. Traditional methods used to track recidivism look at three-year trends and refer to people who return to society after incarceration as “reentrants.”

While the overall recidivism rate remained mostly constant since the last report, the PA DOC saw an increase in recidivism in at least two segments of the population: white reentrants and women.

The reoffending rate for white reentrants increased by 9% since 2000 while the rate for Black reentrants decreased by nearly 3% during that same timeframe.

The report also states that women generally have lower reoffending rates than men. However, since 2009, the recidivism rate for women increased by more than 13%.

Recidivism rates, or data that tracks if people are rearrested or reincarcerated after being released from prison, are tracked yearly by the state’s prison department. But this year’s report was partially delayed due to the pandemic, according to the PA DOC.

K. Bret Bucklen, Ph.D., is director of the Office of Planning, Research and Statistics at the PA DOC. He’s also the lead author of the Recidivism 2022 Report, which was due to be released nearly four years ago, he said.

“Going forward we hope to do a report probably every five years or so,” Bucklen said.

When women reoffend

Kerry Richmond is an associate professor of criminal justice and criminology at Lycoming College. Her research has focused on gender, crime, recidivism and reintegration into society. She said she went to graduate school with Bucklen, the report’s author.

Richmond said, with regards to female recidivism, experts are examining what is called “gender-specific programming” in prisons. Simply put, research is beginning to recognize there are different needs between men and women within the criminal legal system, she said.

“You see a lot of women who are arrested and convicted for drug offenses, property offenses, so these are usually not women who are high-risk serious offenders,” Richmond said, adding that many women recidivate after being victimized. “A lot of it goes back to trauma.”

Many incarcerated women have co-occurring disorders, including substance abuse and mental health issues, and prisons can exacerbate those problems, she said.

The report breaks out recidivism rates for each of Pennsylvania's counties, as in the above graphic.
Recidivism 2022 Report, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections
The report breaks out recidivism rates for each of Pennsylvania's counties, as in the above graphic.

Where recidivism rates are the highest

The report also examines recidivism trends across the state’s counties and separate correctional institutions. Counties have higher rates when more reentrants are charged for offenses within those counties.

Central and western counties have the highest overall recidivism rates. But northeast Pennsylvania’s Columbia County, with Bloomsburg as its county seat, has the highest single rate of 76%.

On the list of individual facilities, State Correctional Institution Frackville in Schuylkill County ranked the highest. More than three-quarters of people who leave Frackville returned within three years – a rate of 76.2%.

Kathy Brittain, superintendent of SCI Frackville, said the institution’s status as a maximum security prison is one of the reasons for such a high rate.

“Some of the offenders that we house and eventually leave from our facility are higher risk inherently,” Brittain said.

But there are eight other maximum security prisons in the commonwealth that house men. One maximum security prison in southwestern Pennsylvania, SCI Greene, ranked the lowest with a recidivism rate of about 55%.

The PA DOC’s most recent monthly population report shows that 1,012 people – or about 86% capacity – were incarcerated at SCI Frackville at the end of August. That’s down from three years ago when the institution was at over 100% capacity of its operational bed capacity. In August 2019, nearly half of state prisons were over-capacity.

Brittain said, as of the last few years, her institution has added vocational and educational programs to the facility. But that wasn’t always the case at Frackville.

“Probably because of our maximum security status, we had fewer program opportunities in the past… Prior to that, we were just more of a housing facility,” Brittain said.

Programs to reduce recidivism come in many forms at Frackville, according to Brittain.

“We have a Second Chance Pell Grant through Lehigh Carbon Community College… where a cohort of inmates could actually gain their business degree,” she said, adding that about 105 out of the institution's inmates are enrolled in correspondence courses. “One of the things we try to do is boost their opportunities to get training, degrees, high school diplomas, GEDs.”

Brittain said SCI Frackville has a few pilot programs in the works, including a grant-funded effort to connect children with their incarcerated parents via virtual reality.

Tom Riese
A chart using data from the 2022 recidivism report shows which state institutions are below average and above average in terms of reoffending rates.

Most reentrants return to prison for technical parole violations

The 2022 report shows that out of the two-thirds of reentrants who return to state prisons, more than half of those rearrested or reincarcerated are due to technical parole violations, like failing to pass drug tests or missing curfew. Parole, a form of early release with supervision, can last for years after a person is released from a state correctional institution.

Bucklen said that if people return to prison on a technical violation, it usually isn’t a first-time misstep.

“It’s not just like they missed an appointment with their parole agent. They probably have relapsed several times,” he said.

Comparing the commonwealth’s recidivism rate with the rates of other states can be difficult due to specific definitions of recidivism and different ranking systems, according to this year’s report.

However, a 2021 report from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction showed that the state’s overall three-year recidivism rate is 32.7%, just about half of Pennsylvania’s rate.

The New York State Department of Corrections reports a 42% overall three-year year recidivism rate back in 2015. That same year, the commonwealth’s recidivism rate was around 64%.

Cost of recidivism

The overall budget for the PA DOC increased 50% from 2010 to 2019, growing from $1.8 billion to $2.7 billion. The share of money spent on incarcerating recidivists grew, too.

In 2010, the department used over a third of its budget – $686 million – to reincarcerate reentrants.

By 2019 that amount had grown to nearly 45% of the PA DOC budget, when the department spent $1.2 billion to return people to state prisons who had already been there.

The Pennsylvania Treasury breakdown of the current fiscal year’s $42.7 billion general fund shows that the DOC’s budget remains just over $2.7 billion, the third highest appropriation in the commonwealth.

Pennsylvania spent more than $42,000 per person to incarcerate an individual in 2015, according to a report from the Vera Institute of Justice.

A note on calculating the rate

In a later part of the 2022 report, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections said that recidivism rates should be interpreted differently.

Adjusting calculations with methodology published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2019 would decrease the commonwealth’s recidivism rate by 10 to 11%, according to Bucklen. However, the BJS methodology is not used to calculate the majority of the data in the report.

Bucklen said the traditional way of calculating recidivism – only focusing on reentrants who are rearrested or reincarcerated – is too negative. He also said conventional calculations “over-inflate” the recidivism rate by over-representing repeat offenders.

The report’s authors chose to focus on concepts that show how reentrants slow down or stop relapsing all together after release: desistance (a slow down or cessation of offenses); deceleration (less frequent offenses); and de-escalation (less serious offenses).

Bucklen pointed to the concept of deceleration, noting that although more than two-thirds of reentrants recidivate, 73% of reentrants commit crimes less frequently.

Updated: October 20, 2022 at 10:31 AM EDT
After an inquiry into a specific institution, a spokesperson from the PA DOC added the following: "We don't read too much into marginal differences between facilities as incarcerated people often transfer between SCIs over the course of their sentence."
Tom Riese is a multimedia reporter and the local host for NPR's All Things Considered. He comes to NEPA by way of Philadelphia. He is a York County native who studied journalism at Temple University.

You can email Tom at tomriese@wvia.org
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