Measuring Change: From Rates of Recidivism to Markers of Desistance

The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Forthcoming

Univ. of Wisconsin Legal Studies Research Paper No. 1441

47 Pages Posted: 21 Mar 2018 Last revised: 13 Apr 2018

Date Written: March 15, 2018


Reducing the incidence of crime is a primary task of the criminal justice system, and one for which it rightly should be held accountable. The system’s success is frequently judged by the recidivism rates of those who are subject to various criminal justice interventions, from treatment programs to imprisonment. This Article suggests that, however popular, recidivism alone is a poor metric for gauging the success of the criminal justice interventions, or of those who participate in them. This is true primarily because recidivism is a binary measure, and behavioral change is a multi-faceted process. Accepting recidivism as a valid stand-alone metric imposes on the criminal justice system a responsibility outside its capacity, demanding that its success turn on transforming even the most serious and intractable of offenders into fully law-abiding citizens. Instead of measuring success by simple rates of recidivism, policymakers should seek more nuanced metrics. One such alternative is readily-available: markers of desistance. Desistance, which in this context means the process by which individuals move from a life that is crime-involved to one that is not, is evidenced not just by whether a person re-offends at all, but also by increasing intervals between offenses and patterns of de-escalating behavior. These easily-obtainable metrics, which are already widely relied on by criminologists, can yield more nuanced information about the degree to which criminal justice interventions correlate to positive (or negative) life change. They also resemble more closely the ways in which other fields that address behavioral change, such as education, attempt to measure change over time. Measuring the success of criminal justice interventions by reference to their effects on desistance would mean seeking evidence of progress, not perfection. Such an approach would allow criminal justice agencies to be held accountable for promoting positive change without asking them to do the impossible, thereby creating new pathways by which the criminal justice system could be recognized for achieving real and measurable progress in crime reduction.

Keywords: recidivism, desistance, probation, parole, sentencing, corrections, criminal justice

JEL Classification: K14, K4, K42

Suggested Citation

Klingele, Cecelia M., Measuring Change: From Rates of Recidivism to Markers of Desistance (March 15, 2018). The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Forthcoming; Univ. of Wisconsin Legal Studies Research Paper No. 1441. Available at SSRN: or

Cecelia M. Klingele (Contact Author)

University of Wisconsin Law School ( email )

975 Bascom Mall
Madison, WI 53706
United States
608-890-3258 (Phone)

Register to save articles to
your library


Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics