Leveraging National Standards to Accelerate Recidivism Studies: Nlets, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and the States

Kayelyn Means, Communications Specialist, Nlets

JRSA Forum. December 2012. Volume 30, Number 4.

Prisons throughout the United States are often said to have "revolving doors," as many inmates return at some point after their initial release. Research demonstrates that nearly two thirds of all individuals arrested for a criminal offense have a prior criminal history, and in many cases their histories include offenses in multiple states and/or jurisdictions. This recidivism rate is under constant scrutiny as states work to develop and implement programs to rehabilitate inmates-and defend their spending on correctional facilities, jails, and prisons. A recent article from the Pew Center on the States, Prison Count 2010, reports that from 1973 to 2009, the prison population across the nation increased by 705%, with more than one in 100 adults incarcerated. According to the National Association of State Budget Officers, with the increase of inmates, the cost of state and federal spending on federal agencies has also grown substantially--a 305% increase equal to nearly $52 billion in that same time frame (2009 State Expenditure Report). What these reports fail to represent is the number of these incarcerated adults that are returning to the prison system as opposed to first-time offenders.

The data cited in many states' legislation are based on the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) report Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994. This report contains the most current national-level statistics and has served as the foundation of legislative and budgetary decisions for corrections and prisons since its publication in 2002, but it is now more than 10 years old. A recidivism study requires tracking and gathering multistate data for typically three to five years. These data have not always been available digitally, which means manually sorting through thousands of hard copy records and entering them into a computer system. Gathering the national data took years and often left room for error. For the 1994 study, BJS made individual requests to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and criminal history record repositories in 15 states. From each agency it received computerized criminal history data sets, or Record of Arrests and Prosecutions (RAP) sheets, that were in various formats with varying types of information. BJS then had to translate each one into a common format that could support national-level recidivism research.

Getting the Facts
The criminal history record, or "RAP sheet," is used by law enforcement in numerous ways, but primarily as an investigative tool and to determine a suspect's status as a probationer, parolee, or bailee. The presence or absence of a prior criminal record assists judges and magistrates as they make pretrial decisions on whether or not, and under what circumstances, to release a subject on bail, while prosecutors use criminal records during plea negotiations, sentencing, or the parole hearing.

More than a decade ago a Joint Task Force was established by the FBI to develop a standard transmission format of the RAP sheet for the sharing of criminal history records between the states. An eXtensible Markup Language (XML) version was quickly adopted by the FBI and the nation. During the past five years, Nlets, the International Justice and Public Safety Network, has been helping the states and territories implement the standardized RAP sheet for interstate exchange across the Nlets network.

"The standardization of state data flowing through the Interstate Identification Index (III) system has resulted in a new opportunity for researchable content derived from merged, multistate RAP sheets generated by Criminal History Record Information Sharing (CHRIS) services, which has been funded by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS)," explains Steve Correll, Nlets Executive Director, who helped develop the idea of XML Rap Sheet implementation and the CHRIS project.

In 2008, BJS partnered with Nlets to produce an automated and standardized process that provides BJS access to criminal history data from III and the state repositories for research purposes. This process is used by BJS to conduct national recidivism studies. The CHRIS process is a marked improvement over previous data collection methods with regard to timeliness, cost, and depth of data provided. The data collection process developed through the CHRIS project provides BJS with multistate criminal history data in a uniform file layout. The databases that are generated by Nlets for BJS contain state- and federal-specific fields (e.g., offense statutes and disposition codes). To support national-level recidivism research, the Nlets-generated database needs to be transformed into a nationally standardized coding structure.

BJS is working with NORC at the University of Chicago to develop a software system that converts the federal- and state-specific fields extracted from the criminal history records into a common national coding structure. When completed, the recoding software will be run on the criminal history data collected for a new BJS prisoner recidivism study.

"Since 1994, we have been seeking ways to do things better-the 1994 study was very manual with physical paper data files; it took years," says Dr. Gerard Ramker, Deputy Director of BJS, who worked with Nlets to develop the architecture of CHRIS. "The CHRIS project has tremendous potential coming to fruition, enhancing data quality for the states, providing repositories for comparison and allowing information and record sharing between agencies."

The 1994 recidivism study included 15 states, a sample of about 34,000 persons released from prison that year, and took about 4 1/2 years to complete. The new recidivism study of persons exiting prison in 2005, with Phase One achieved through the CHRIS project in early 2012, included more than 70,000 records across 32 states and the FBI, and it took less than one year to complete. "We're giving the criminal justice community a much more complete picture, as they are able to see the extent of criminal history record information beyond the borders of their own state," Ramker explains.

"The 2005 prisoner recidivism study is not completed yet. The CHRIS project helped BJS collect the data; however, the second phase of accomplishing this work is to convert the data into a common coding structure. This work is being done outside of the CHRIS project. Results from this study are expected to be available in 2013," Matt Durose, Statistician with BJS, clarifies. While the data collection took Nlets and the BJS less than one year to complete, additional time was needed to produce the software that would actually provide the complete, comprehensive recidivism data.

"With this new process, we allow researchers to target their questions for the results we're gathering. With the economy and society changing so drastically, different questions are being asked; that's why it's so important to provide them with more accurate, more complete and more timely information with these studies," states Frank Minice, Nlets Deputy Executive Director, who helped oversee the design, development, and implementation of the architecture of the CHRIS project.

How CHRIS Works
The standardized, national RAP sheets, obtained from the state criminal history repositories and the FBI via the CHRIS Requester Process, are collated, merged, and extracted by the CHRIS Information Services System.

Upon receiving a CHRIS query data set, Nlets receives one or more criminal history messages containing state and federal records on the subject. The response is immediately stored in a working database and associated with a CHRIS Subject ID. Part of this process involves identifying and storing the message's format (text or XML) and message type.

This initiates the CHRIS Harvester Process and, depending on the message's format and type, an appropriate parser is utilized. The parsing program fetches structures and identifiers from the message content. Nlets has created parsing instructions for all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the FBI using XML query language (XQuery) and an open source parser generation tool called Another Tool for Language Recognition (AnTLR). Once the criminal history content has been parsed, the resulting structured data can be imported into a database or undergo more analysis. The harvested data elements are written to the CHRIS database, extracted into a delimited format suitable for import, and transmitted to BJS via the CHRIS Export Process through a secure file transfer.

Why Does This Research Matter?
Data gathered through recidivism research are disseminated to Congress and federal agencies, the U.S. Attorney General, state agencies, and the media. This research is critical to policymakers and practitioners for making informed state budget and policy decisions, evaluating or developing rehabilitation programs within correctional facilities, and determining links between the statistics and current events.

As states examine recidivism within their own borders, many establish policies to directly target likely reoffenders and, through proper rehabilitation, prevent them from reentering the prison system. Some states, such as North Carolina and California, place reoffenders with violations against their parole back in prison for a short stay, while other states, such as Oregon, use prison as a "last-resort" punishment for violators. States vary their parole lengths, in addition to the punishment for technical violations, making it difficult to interpret a state's recidivism rate. For example, North Carolina has shorter paroles, and therefore fewer technical violations, but extremely high numbers of reoffenders with a new crime due to the shorter rehabilitation and supervisory period. Each of these approaches may influence or alter a given state's recidivism rate, which doesn't directly reflect the success of their policies and programs; rather, it demonstrates the action taken with reoffenders.

"States cannot determine whether their correctional interventions are effective if they lack the basic data necessary to evaluate the outcomes," declares the Pew Center on the States. "Even if states could afford to keep building and operating more prisons, recent research and the experience of several states now make it clear that there are strategies for controlling low-risk offenders and those who break the rules of their supervision that cost less and are more effective" (Prison Count 2010).

As states utilize the research and statistics to combat the recidivism rates within their borders, offenders are able to assimilate safely back into society, expenses for maintaining jails and prisons and supporting inmates are significantly reduced, and crime rates decrease in our communities.

About Nlets
Nlets is an international, computer-based message switching system that links state, local, and federal law enforcement and justice agencies for the purpose of information exchange. It provides information services support for a growing number of justice-related applications. To accomplish this, Nlets supports data communications links to state networks using a commercial frame relay service. All agencies within each state are serviced through this state interface. Federal and international systems operate in much the same manner.

The Nlets user population is composed of all of the states/territories, all federal agencies with a justice component, selected international agencies and strategic partners, all cooperatively exchanging data. The types of data being exchanged vary from motor vehicle and driver's data, Canadian "Hot File" records and U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service databases to state criminal history records. More than one billion messages are transacted annually across the Nlets network.

For more information about Nlets, visit www.nlets.org. For more information about the Nlets CHRIS project, contact Bonnie Locke (blocke@nlets.org).

About the Bureau of Justice Statistics
The Bureau of Justice Statistics was first established on December 27, 1979, under the Justice Systems Improvement Act of 1979. BJS is a component of the Office of Justice Programs in the U.S. Department of Justice. The mission of the BJS is to collect, analyze, publish, and disseminate information on crime, criminal offenders, victims of crime, and the operation of justice systems at all levels of government. These data are critical to federal, state, and local policymakers in combating crime and ensuring that justice is both efficient and evenhanded.

For more information about the Bureau of Justice Statistics, visit http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/.