skip to content


Serving People from Arrest to Reintegration

Scarlet Letters and Recidivism: Does An Old Criminal Record Predict Future Recidivism?

  • Organization: University of South Carolina
  • Author: Megan Kurlychek at
  • Date Created: Wednesday, April 12, 2006
  • Submitted: Wednesday, April 12, 2006
  • Attachment(s): PDF | HTM

Research Summary: 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. Using hazard rates and posterior distribution analysis, we find that immediately following 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 a person who offended 6 or 7 years in the past looks very similar in regard to risk of new offending to a person who never offended at all.

Policy Implications: Individuals with official records of past offending behavior encounter a number of barriers when they try to obtain employment, acquire housing, meet certification requirements, access student loans, adopt children, or vote in elections. Even if a person's most recent offense occurred in the distant past, a criminal record can block access to opportunities. 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 bring into question 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.

Keywords: Collateral consequences, recidivism, desistance.

Reentry NetPractice Areas

Pro Bono and legal aid attorney resources - Pro Bono Net