Criminal recidivism – where a criminal reoffends - of former prisoners is a widespread phenomenon. Recidivism rates are close to 60% in the US, ithe Netherlands, England and Wales, and in Uruguay, to mention a few examples. Evidence indicates most criminal recidivism occurs within the first year after release (Langan and Levin 2002).
In a recent paper published we provide a novel approach to studying criminal recidivism, focussing on recidivism during the first day of freedom, what we name ‘first-day recidivism’.
Committing a crime on your first day of freedom
Using a unique database on crime and releases from Montevideo, Uruguay, we find the number of inmates released on a given day significantly affects the number of offences committed on that day, and we interpret this result as evidence of first-day recidivism.
The dynamics of the relationship between crime and releases shows that inmate releases increase crime on the very day of the release but have no effect on crime in subsequent days.
This finding points to some special first-day effect and suggests that release policies focusing on preventing first-day recidivism might be effective in reducing crime. We find that an increase in the gratuity at release – money given to ex-prisoners – produces a significant decrease in first-day recidivism, a decrease that is not compensated by an increase in crime in the following days. The fact that increasing the stipend given to prisoners upon release reduces the propensity of released prisoners to engage in criminal behaviour is both novel and important from a policy perspective.
Our paper contributes to the literature on criminal recidivism. The criminology literature defines criminal recidivism as a time interval between two events (Maltz 1984) – a release event (usually from incarceration) and a failure event (re-arrest or reconviction). Here, we focus on the estimation of re-offences instead of following the usual procedure of using records on re-arrest or re-conviction, allowing in this way the inclusion of a large pool of offences usually omitted in standard statistics. Harrendorf, Heiskanen, and Malby (2010) consider more than 100 countries in the United Nations’ International Statistics on Crime and Justice and report high levels of attrition between the commitment of a crime and the arrest or conviction of the offender (50% of offenders are arrested and 19% are convicted). In Uruguay only 25% of the police-recorded offences are prosecuted.
We present evidence that an increase of one reported crime for every four inmates released. To the best of our knowledge, we provide the first estimates on the magnitude of the re-offence rate during the very day prisoners are released.
The impact of increasing the gratuity at release
Having established evidence on first-day criminal recidivism, we ask whether it is possible to prevent it. To do so, we explore the impact of an exogenous increase in the gratuity at release on first-day recidivism. On September 2010 the gratuity at release was multiplied by three and a quarter, thus relaxing the first-day cash constraint faced by released prisoners and allowing us to explore the impact that this policy had on first-day recidivism. The increase in the gratuity at released is indeed important – according to official statistics, it was 20% more than the amount of money needed to purchase a basic daily food basket. The first-day crime was reduced to zero after this policy.
The liquidity-constraint hypothesis
We further explore the reasons underlying first-day recidivism. We report that first-day recidivism is observed for crimes that have a financial motivation (property crimes such as thefts and robberies) and not for other types of offences (non-property crimes such as assaults and domestic violence), findings consistent with a rational framework in which offenders have liquidity constraints, as in Jacob, Lefgren, and Moretti (2007).
The liquidity-constraint hypothesis implies that first-day recidivism only affects property crime. And it does. Another implication of the liquidity-constraint hypothesis is that first-day recidivism should affect more those released prisoners that are more constraint, such as the young and the single. This is also exactly what we find.
Our work also contributes to a recent discussion on release policies. Release policies have received little attention in the economics literature, an omission that is unfortunate considering that, only in the US, approximately six hundred thousand prisoners are released every year (BJS 2002), and an important share of crime is committed by the newly released (Raphael and Stoll 2004). Rossi, Berk, and Lenihan (1980) and Mallar and Thornton (1978) analyse a randomised experiment in which unemployment benefits were extended to individuals immediately upon release from prison. They find significantly fewer re-arrest for property crimes within the year. Berk, Lenihan, and Rossi (1980) analyse two related experiments and report that modest transfer payments reduce recidivism in the twelve-month period following release from prison.
Our research sheds new light on the behaviour of criminals. We find the number of inmates released on any given day significantly affects the number of offences committed that day, thus providing the first empirical evidence of first-day criminal recidivism. We explore potential underlying reasons to our findings and provide evidence that first-day recidivism can be eliminated by an increase in the gratuity provided to prisoners at the time of their release.
Even though the increase in the gratuity at release causes a huge reduction in crime at individual level, the reduction of aggregate crime (in a city with 1.5 million inhabitants) is only 0.8%.
However, our results have important policy implications by highlighting the importance of the amount of the gratuity at release when designing anti-crime policies. A simple cost-benefit analysis shows that increasing the gratuity at release is a very efficient policy – it costs 200 times less than the average amount of money spent by the public and private sector in Uruguay to avoid a property crime.
BJS (2002), Key facts at a glance, Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice.
Harrendorf, Stefan, Markku Heiskanen, and Steven Malby (2010), “International Statistics on Crime and Justice”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Jacob, Brian, Lars Lefgren, and Enrico Moretti (2007), “The Dynamics of Criminal Behavior: Evidence from Weather Shocks", Journal of Human Resources 42 (3), 489-527.
Langan, Patrick and David Levin (2002), “Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994”, Bureau of Justice Statistics: Special Report, June, NCJ 193427.
Mallar, Charles and Craig Thornton (1978), “Transitional Aid for Released Prisoners: Evidence from the Life Experiment”, Journal of Human Resources 13 (2), 208-236.
Maltz, Michael (1984), Recidivism, Academic Press, New York.
Munyo, Ignacio and Martin Rossi (2015), “First-Day Criminal Recidivism”, Journal of Public Economics 124, 81-90.
Raphael, Steven and Michael Stoll (2004), “The Effect of Prison Releases on Regional Crime Ratesm,” In Gale, W and J Rothenberg Pack (eds.), The Brookings-Wharton Papers on Urban Economics Affairs, Volume 5, The Brookings Institution: Washington, D.C.
Rossi, Peter , Richard Berk, and Kenneth Lenihan (1980), Money, Work, and Crime: Some Experimental Results, New York: Academic Press.