Australian Institute of Criminology

Skip to content

Executive summary

This report provides an overview of the limitations of using recidivism as a measure of the performance of juvenile justice agencies. Based on consultation with key stakeholders in each of Australia’s jurisdictions, the report also provides an overview of principles to inform the use of juvenile recidivism as a more robust and meaningful measure of performance.

Limitations of using recidivism as a measure of performance of juvenile justice agencies

Recidivism can be a problematic measure of the performance of criminal justice agencies for a number of reasons, including that

  • measures of recidivism can be inaccurate and/or misleading. Although a decrease in rates of recidivism might reflect a genuine decrease in reoffending, this might also reflect other unrelated factors, such as offenders committing less detectable offences, or delays in the processing of offenders;
  • rates of recidivism can be influenced by many factors and therefore cannot accurately reflect the performance of a particular criminal justice intervention. That is, many of the factors that influence recidivism are not able to be controlled by criminal justice authorities;
  • the length of time over which recidivism is measured impacts on the extent of recidivism uncovered. Generally speaking, the longer the period of time, the higher the rate of recidivism;
  • focusing on recidivism renders other (perhaps equally important) outcomes redundant. Criminal justice interventions may be effective at improving a range of indicators for offenders (eg health and wellbeing; educational and/or employment opportunities), without reducing recidivism. These measures may have an impact on offending trajectories in the longer term and may therefore provide a better assessment of the performance of criminal justice services;
  • measures of recidivism assume a steady rate of offending. That is, to say that the recidivism of a cohort of offenders has ‘increased’ or ‘decreased’ by a particular percentage following a criminal justice intervention assumes that without the intervention, the cohort would have continued offending at the same rate as prior to the intervention. This may not, however, always be the case; and
  • rates of recidivism are often compared with an unrealistic ideal of zero percent, which might be considered unrealistic given the characteristics of offenders whose recidivist behaviour is being measured (ie often serious offenders in detention or under another type of criminal justice supervision).

Using recidivism as a measure of the performance of juvenile justice agencies in particular can be problematic, as

  • juveniles have a different offending profile from adults. As a result of a range of factors, juveniles tend to come to police attention more often than adults. The characteristics of juvenile offending may therefore impact on measures of juvenile recidivism;
  • offending peaks during adolescence. Recidivism measures of juveniles are therefore calculated for periods when there may be an increase in offending irrespective of the intervention of the criminal justice system; and
  • measuring juvenile recidivism requires access to data on offenders in both the juvenile and adult justice systems, as a proportion of juveniles continues offending into adulthood. This may require substantial resources and is not always achievable in practice.

Recidivism has nonetheless been identified as an important performance measure in the juvenile justice system. As such, it is important to consider how best juvenile recidivism could be measured.

Principles to inform the measurement of juvenile recidivism in Australia

Consultations with key staff from the statutory juvenile justice authority in each of Australia’s jurisdictions were used to inform proposals for the enhanced measurement of juvenile recidivism in Australia. These are

  • that the primary counting unit should be juvenile offenders, rather than offences, orders, convictions or sentences;
  • that a prospective, rather than retrospective, approach be adopted;
  • that juveniles should be tracked into the adult criminal justice system;
  • that minor offences should be excluded from measures of juvenile recidivism;
  • that technical breaches of supervised orders should be excluded from measures of juvenile recidivism;
  • that restorations of suspended sentences should be excluded from measures of juvenile recidivism;
  • that data from specialty courts should be included in measures of juvenile recidivism;
  • that juvenile recidivism should be measured over multiple periods of time where possible;
  • that pseudo-recidivism (ie when all convictions recorded after an index sentence, including those imposed for offences committed prior to this sentence, are counted as recidivism) should be excluded from measures of juvenile recidivism;
  • that offence dates, rather than conviction or sentencing dates, should be used to measure juvenile recidivism;
  • that offences committed while a juvenile is serving a community-based order should be included in measures of juvenile recidivism;
  • that offences committed while a juvenile is serving a detention-based order should be excluded from measures of juvenile recidivism; and
  • that measures of juvenile recidivism should consider frequency and severity of reoffending.

Recommendations for measuring juvenile recidivism in Australia

Based on these principles, it is recommended that a suite of measures be adopted to calculate rates of juvenile recidivism, including

  • the proportion of juvenile offenders that recidivates;
  • the proportion of juvenile offenders that seriously recidivates;
  • the proportion of juvenile offenders that ‘progresses’ to more serious offending;
  • the rate of juvenile recidivism per population;
  • the average number of re-offences per juvenile recidivist; and
  • the average number of serious re-offences per juvenile recidivist.

As individual measures of juvenile recidivism each have strengths and limitations, these measures should be considered together where possible, rather than in isolation. Using a range of measures to capture levels of juvenile recidivism is a prudent strategy to minimise the limitations of any sole measure.