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"Smart people (like smart lawyers) can come up with very good explanations for mistaken points of view."

- Richard P. Feynman, Physicist

"There is a danger in clarity, the danger of over looking the subtleties of truth."

-Alfred North Whitehead

June 9, 2010


Repeat drunk drivers have been the focus of legislative action on drunk driving for years, primarily by increasing penalties. Why are they the focus? Statistics from the Court system show that approximately 40% of the individuals convicted of operating while intoxicated had been convicted at least once before. That means approximately 60% had no prior contact with the justice system for an operating while intoxicated case. (The lack of contact with this 60% is one reason the Court system cannot, alone, solve any operating while intoxicated problem.)

However, the 40% statistic described above does not mean that there is a 40% recidivism rate. A recidivism rate is a calculation of the percentage of offenders convicted and treated (either through jail, counseling, etc.) that again re-offend. The literature uses many different definitions of recidivism. Because the definitions of recidivism may differ, and the populations used to calculate them will differ, recidivism rates most likely will not be comparable among different studies.

For example, a drunk driver may be considered a recidivist after he or she gets arrested again for a drunk driving, or gets convicted of drunk driving, or gets convicted of any traffic crime, or gets convicted of any crime. Therefore, the definition of the triggering event that makes one a recidivist is important.

Secondly, the time period over which the rate is calculated is important. There are one year recidivism rates, (i.e. how many offenders re-offender over a one year period), two year recidivism rates, three year recidivism rates, on up, to lifetime recidivism rates (how many people re-offend in their lifetimes). In reality, most studies will involve three year or less rates, as researchers want to evaluate programs as soon as enough data has been accumulated to make a judgment on the efficacy of the program.

About one year ago, I calculated recidivism rates on OWI’s in Dodge County. The definition is the percentage of drunk drivers that were re-arrested for another drunk driving which resulted in a conviction within one, two and three years after attending a victim-impact panel. They are as follows:

289 offenders comprised of 1st, 2nds, 3rds, 4ths, and 5ths (that weren’t sentenced to prison)

One year – 4.15%

Two year – 9.34%

Three year – 15.57%

What should we learn from these statistics?

The views expressed in this blog are solely the views of the author(s) and do not represent the views of any other public official or organization.

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