Why recidivism statistics don’t tell the full story

Photo illustration by Nicole Sroka

Will Lewis and Zyion Houston-Sconiers entered the juvenile justice system as teens on opposite sides of the country. They were both raised in poverty, lacked a stable family life, and joined gangs in search of companionship. 

After they put their youth cases behind them and aged out of the juvenile system they found themselves back in trouble with the law. In Tacoma, Washington, cops caught Houston-Sconiers with a gun in a backpack, and near Atlanta, Lewis was arrested in an alleyway where a robbery took place. 

Recidivism — defined as a “relapse into criminal behavior” — has long been used as a primary indicator of a juvenile system’s success. However, experts argue that measuring when a system fails and youth reoffend should not be the only way to know how well it is working.

Juvenile recidivism is measured differently from state to state, making it difficult to compare jurisdictions, said Melissa Sickmund, director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice.

“Personally, I have tried my damnedest to not use the word recidivism,” Sickmund said. “One, people can’t understand it right. Two, people can’t spell it right. Three, nobody really knows, ‘What do you mean by that?’” 

Sickmund said some jurisdictions measure whether a youth is arrested, others whether they’re found guilty of a crime, and others whether they are committed to a secure facility. All of these methods of determining recidivism yield vastly different results, she said.

In 2019, the federal government reauthorized the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2018. In it, lawmakers now require the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), for the first time, to establish a national standard for measuring recidivism. 

But as things stand now, by OJJDP’s own admission: “National recidivism rates for juveniles do not exist.” The best they have is data from 2006, attributed to Sickmund, which shows 12-month rearrest rates to be 55%, reconviction rates to 33%, and recommitment rates to be 12%.

Sickmund said that for adults, recidivism data usually focuses on how many adults return to prison after they’re released. However, she says that metric won’t work for juveniles, because kids have much more varied types of contact with the system — they may, for example, go through a diversion program, initiatives that offer youth alternatives to formal processing in the juvenile system, or be put on probation. 

Additionally, Sickmund said there is oftentimes no reliable way to link adult and juvenile offenses. The two court systems are distinct and rarely share records. 

Houston-Sconiers’ and Lewis’ later offenses are the type which most recidivism statistics won’t capture. 

Lewis was 18 when he was arrested in the alleyway. At the time he was awaiting decisions on college applications after completing a rehabilitative second chance program offered to him by his juvenile judge, Steven Teske. 

As Lewis tells it, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time — and Teske believed him. Teske, who was not involved in Lewis’ adult case, said that after reading the police’s incident report, he found Lewis’ story “really quite believable.”  

Police charged Lewis for committing a burglary, which is a felony. Lewis took a plea deal, which resulted in a short stint in prison. 

“We don’t give up,” said Teske. “He was now in the adult system and we were supportive of him.”

Because of Lewis’ future plans to get into the aviation industry, Teske said they knew he could not have a felony on his record. So the judge intervened. 

“I appointed [Lewis] an attorney specially to file a motion to expunge that offense and went to the district attorney and she agreed,” Teske said. “In fact, I actually helped out the defense attorney because he was doing pro bono. I prepared the consent order, gave it to him. He took it to the D.A. (district attorney) who signed it. Took it to the judge who signed it to remove that felony from his record.”

Now, Lewis’ record is clear of his adult crime. In May, 2020, he graduated from Middle Georgia State University with a master’s degree in cybersecurity and he aspires to get his Ph.D. by the time he’s 30. 

Houston-Sconiers didn’t have the same luck. Since he was released from prison early after his juvenile crime as the result of a relatively high profile Washington State Supreme Court case, he said he felt like he had a target on his back. Police officers across the community recognized him and, he said, on multiple occasions stopped and searched him — sometimes violently. 

“When I first got out, it was a movie, man. I enjoyed it. Life was treating me good. But once that movie was over, life was real, it got very real for me,” Houston-Sconiers said.  “When I didn’t know what else to do, what was natural to me came.”

One day in November 2018, Houston-Sconiers was wandering his Tacoma neighborhood on foot, looking for a ride home. He had just been released from the hospital, where he had been diagnosed with bronchitis and prescribed medication. 

According to Houston-Sconiers, who studied official reports related to his case in detail in an effort to mitigate his sentence, police officers were watching the area he was walking. When Houston-Sconiers got into his friend’s vehicle, he said the police followed him. Three officers pulled them over for running a stop light, searched the car, and found a backpack with drugs he maintains were not his and a gun he admits was his own. They arrested and charged Houston-Sconiers for both. 

“When you think about it, when did you ever get pulled over by three officers for a traffic stop?” Houston-Sconiers said. “They knew what they were doing.”

Thanks to Washington State’s three-strike system, designed to crack down on repeat offenders, Houston-Sconiers was facing life in prison without the possibility of parole for getting caught with a gun in his friend’s car. He said it’s a dangerous part of town, and the gun helps him feel safer. 

Like Judge Teske with Lewis, Washington State Sen. Darneille sympathized with Houston-Sconiers’ side of the story, and did some, as she calls, “extraordinary interventions” to help him. After Darneille vouched for Houston-Sconiers before his prosecutor and judge, his sentence was reduced from life to 11 years. He’s one year into it now. 

“I wish that we could make these kinds of interventions on every person’s case,” Darneille said. “[People] can become ill, can die in this system. Losing relationships, losing educational opportunities, losing self-esteem, losing hope is common throughout our system.”

Beyond the technical problems it presents, Sickmund and other advocates — like Sean Goode, the director of a diversion program near Seattle — argue against using recidivism as a metric because it ignores the positive things a person does. 

“I think recidivism is a horrible data point,” Goode  said. He prefers not to focus solely on whether a young person becomes involved with the criminal justice system again, but “what are they engaging in as an alternative [to criminal behavior], and I think that is super substantive — and probably the most difficult thing to measure.”

Each morning, when Houston-Sconiers awakes in his cell, he reads aloud his concrete plans for the future: to be an author and semi-truck owner and operator by 2024. 

“I wanna be a millionaire,” he said. “And I want my kids to be billionaires. That’s how I know I’ve succeeded — if my kids do more in life than me.” 

Zyion’s wife, Arrogrance Wood-Houston, has no doubt in his ability to achieve his ambitious goals. 

“Everything that you hear, I promise you it’s gonna come to life,” she said. 

Today Lewis travels the country, telling his motivational story to judges, kids, and other audiences, hoping to inspire kids like him to turn their lives around and adults in the justice system to empower them to do so.  

Lewis also wants to transform his hometown of Riverdale, Georgia. When he was a kid, he said, the “poverty was extreme — rats, roaches. It was real tough.” He wants to spark interest in IT and aviation among his community’s youth, providing certification training that can allow them to make $20 an hour out of high school.

Both 25-year-olds are married, raising children, and have firm convictions to improve their communities. None of those things register in measures of recidivism. 

“You’re measuring success by measuring failure,” Sickmund said. 

Source art courtesy of Arrogrance Wood-Houston

Katherine Sypher is a master’s student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. She is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation fellow for the Southwest Health Reporting Initiative, focusing on health disparities in underserved communities across the Southwest. Originally from Orono, Maine, Sypher graduated with a bachelor’s degree in cognitive science and a minor in French from the University of Connecticut where she co-founded the school’s first student-run science journalism publication, STEMTalk Magazine. Sypher interned at the science communication nonprofit SciLine and for PBS’s series “NOVA.” Recently, she reported on immigration issues in Panama City, Panama.

Anthony J. Wallace is a master’s student at Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University. A Phoenix native, he is a writer and multimedia journalist, producing articles, podcasts, videos, and photos for a variety of publications including Phoenix New Times, Phoenix Magazine and The Hertel Report. Through his own experience with chronic illness, he became fascinated with health care, disease and its intersections with politics and culture. Before pursuing journalism, he earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Northern Arizona University and spent nearly 10 years in a touring alternative rock band.