Do Firearms Offenders Recidivate at Higher Rates?: New USSC Report

On November 30, 2021, the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) published new findings on 8-year recidivism rates of 5,659 federal firearms offenders released in 2010. This report is part of a larger multi-year recidivism study of more than 32,000 federal offenders and also serves as an update to a previous USSC report on firearms and recidivism that examined an earlier cohort released in 2005.

The data showed that 69% of firearms offenders were re-arrested within eight years post-release, compared with 45% of all other offenders (a difference of 24%), and the overall median time to re-arrest was 16 months. For both firearms offenders and non-firearms offenders, the most common offense at re-arrest was assault (26% and 19%, respectively), followed by drug trafficking (11.9% and 11.4%, respectively). Importantly, these findings support the idea that firearms-related offenders are more dangerous and more likely to recidivate than other types of offenders. This finding held regardless of criminal history and age, and may justify the need for sentence enhancements based on certain factors (e.g., use of a firearm).

The recent report examines 5,659 firearms offenders who were either 1) sentenced under §2K2.1; 2) sentenced as armed career criminals or career offenders; or
3) offenders convicted under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). Researchers compared the 8-year recidivism rates of firearms offenders with the 26,476 other offenders whom were sentenced for offenses not involved firearms. The recidivism rates for firearms and all other offenders remained fairly stable when comparing the 2010 release cohort with the 2005 release cohort. In the 2005 release cohort, 68.1% of firearms offenders recidivated compared with 46.3% of all other offenders. In the 2010 release cohort, 69.0% of firearms offenders recidivated compared with 45.1% of all other offenders.

Firearms offenders also recidivated at higher rates regardless of criminal history category (CHC). For example, in the the lowest CHC category (I), 39.7% of firearms offenders recidivated compared with 29.6% of all other offenders. In the highest CHC category (VI), 82.8% of firearms offenders recidivated compared with 72.9% percent of all other offenders. Similarly, firearms offenders recidivated at higher rates regardless of age at the time of release. For example, among people released after age 59, firearms offenders still recidivated at nearly twice the rate — 31.1% compared with 14.5%. This finding may partially support the theory that some, but not all, people will age out of crime.

The aggregate trends are somewhat consistent with other findings from a recently released Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) report that examined 10-year recidivism rates for 73,600 state prisoners released in 2008. In that study, 82% of prisoners were re-arrested during the follow up period, 40% of whom were re-arrested for a violent crime. Similar to the USSC study, assaults were the most common re-arrest at 31% (followed by robberies at 7% and homicides at 1%). Majority of those who recidivated did so in the first 12 months post-release, again similar to the USSC findings reported above (which showed a median of 15 months to re-arrest).

In the BJS study though, age at time of release and criminal history did seem to impact recidivism, in contrast to the USSC’s findings. As an example, BJS found that those with less serious criminal histories (four or fewer prior offenses) re-offended at a rate of 67.2% compared with those with more serious criminal histories (more than 10 offenses) re-offending at a rate of 89.0%. People who were younger at the time of release also recidivated at greater rates. For example, the cumulative 8-year re-arrest rate was 90% for those who were under age 18 at the time of release, compared with 41% of those who were 40 or older at the time of release.

When considering these two reports on recidivism (both of which are based on official data), the aggregate trends are follow similar pattern in terms of recidivism rates (i.e., in both reports, time to re-arrest was approximately one year and the most common type of re-arrest was for assault). But one thing the USSC report shows that the BJS report does not is how recidivism rates for firearms offenders might differ from other types of offenders. When the USSC parses out violent firearms offenders, the time to re-arrest and type of re-offense are very similar when comparing firearms offenders to other offenders, but the impact of criminal history and age disappears.

We already know that recidivism rates vary based on many factors. Generally speaking, people with more serious  criminal histories, those committing more violent offenses, and those who are younger at time of release tend to have lower rates of recidivism. But when the USSC report examined firearms offenders specifically though, this finding changed, and the impact of firearm use was greater than the impact of criminal history and age. Thus, it stands to reason that firearms offenders may pose greater threats to public safety and likely have a greater propensity to re-offend than other types of offenders.

The key policy implication is that use of a firearm may be a strong predictor of recidivism — potentially stronger than the impact of criminal history and age. These findings might justify the need for sentence enhancements for firearms offenders if they are truly more dangerous and more likely to recidivate regardless of other factors. Surely, future research is needed to understand if other factors might explain the difference between firearms and other types of offenders, such as participation in prison rehabilitation programs.

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