most carefully implemented program can achieve, while limits on supply—the state-of-the-art in providing rehabilitative services—puts a cap on what can be achieved even by programs aimed at parolees amenable to change.
On the demand side, an important and often ignored dimension of heterogeneity among released prisoners is first release. As noted in Chapter 1, inmates released from their first prison sentence have lower recidivism rates than those released from prison for the second, third, or fourth time. A recent study found that prisoners released for the first time accumulated 18-25 percent fewer arrests during the first 3 years out of prison than those who had been to prison and released at least once before—controlling for sex, age, race, imprisonment offense, prior arrests, and time served (Rosenfeld et al., 2005). Over time, the fraction of released prisoners who are first-timers has declined, while the fraction who have are being released from their second or other incarceration has increased. This distinction is important (Tonry, 2004, p. 189):
… most people sent to prison, and hence released, will be persistent offenders, and accordingly … on average people released from prison will present relatively high risks for recidivism…. Is it not odd … that in our time, we have forgotten the lower risk first-timers, and do not even think in our research to ask separately about them [emphasis added]
By not distinguishing first-timers from the repeat offenders —who have shown that they are more difficult candidates for reentry—supervision and reentry programs may be doomed from the start. Approaches that work with the first-timers may not work with the repeaters and so may seriously affect assessment outcomes of desistance programs.