SCARLET LETTERS AND RECIDIVISM: DOES AN OLD CRIMINAL RECORD PREDICT FUTURE OFFENDING?
This research explores the issue of old prior records and their ability to predict future offending. In particular, we are interested in the question of whether, after a given period of time, the risk of recidivism for a person who has been arrested in the distant past is ever indistinguishable from that of a population of persons with no prior arrests. Two well-documented empirical facts guide our investigation: (1) Individuals who have offended in the past are relatively more likely to offend in the future, and (2) the risk of recidivism declines as the time since the last criminal act increases. We find that immediately after an arrest, the knowledge of this prior record does significantly differentiate this population from a population of nonoffenders. However, these differences weaken dramatically and quickly over time so that the risk of new offenses among those who last offended six or seven years ago begins to approximate (but not match) the risk of new offenses among persons with no criminal record. Policy Implications:
Individuals with official records of past offending behavior encounter a barrier when they try to obtain employment, even if a person's most recent offense occurred in the distant past. There are many reasons for such obstacles, but they are at least partially premised on the concern that individuals with arrest records—even from the distant past—are more likely to offend in the future than persons with no criminal history. Our analysis questions the logic of such practices and suggests that after a given period of remaining crime free, it may be prudent to wash away the brand of “offender” and open up more legitimate opportunities to this population.