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New from Social Work Research Journal

Recidivism and Survival Time: Racial Disparity among Jail Ex-Inmates

Hyunzee Jung, MSW, Solveig Spjeldnes, PhD, and Hide Yamatani, PhD

A recent study was conducted to compare the recidivism rates between black and white males for jail time.  Although prison recidivism has been studied extensively, jail recidivism has rarely been studied.  The authors hypothesized that black males would be more likely to return to jail than whites, and that the average time between release from jail and return to jail (i.e., survival time) would be shorter for black males than white males.  Interestingly, however, the authors discovered that older blacks had less recidivism than younger blacks.  The study was conducted to further the understanding of racial disparities in incarceration rates in the US.

This study examined recidivism rates and survival time among male ex-inmates released from the Allegheny County Jail in Pennsylvania during 2003 who were tracked for three years.  While it tracked recidivism in this specific jurisdiction, the researchers did not include data from other jurisdictions, so those re-arrests that resulted in  re-incarceration  in facilities other than the Allegheny County Jail were not accounted for in this study’s data.

The study showed that black men were more likely to recidivate than white men.  About 12% more black men than white men recidivated within 12 months of release from jail.  This difference increased to 15.7% at 24 months, and 17.6% at 36 months.

The study also showed that the survival time for black men recidivating was shorter than that of white men.  An expected negative association between length of jail stay and survival days emerged among black men only when they stayed in jail for more than six months, whereas the survival days were invariable when their jail stays were six months or less. This may reflect racial disparity in sentencing practices, which tend to subject black men to harsher and lengthier sentences compared with white. The authors believe that the survival days would decrease as jail stays increased, because length of stay may also be regarded as a proxy for offense type and severity.  The observation of the same negative relationship between jail stay and survival days for black and white inmates with six months’ gap in jail stay duration (the negative association appeared with black men’s six month longer stay than white men) might be linked to the racially disparate sentencing practice.

Numerous factors account for the difference in the rates between black males and white males.  The authors state that most black males are released back into communities with high poverty and unemployment rates, which contribute to greater recidivism, and short time periods out of jail.

Inmates who are older however, are less likely to recidivate than those who are younger, whether black or white.  The authors speculate that because jails are closer to the inmate’s home communities, and jail sentences are generally shorter, inmates are better able to maintain ties to their communities, and to their families.  Those who are older have even stronger ties, which tend to protect them from higher rates of recidivism.

The authors conclude that further studies need to be done on inmate recidivism, and the underlying factors contributing to recidivism, in order to highlight the racial disparities in the judicial system.

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