I do not think that releasing the rates will decrease recidivism. It would be pretty unfair, because different types of criminals go into different prisons. Some repeat offenders are going to offend again regardless of where they go to prison.
We should certainly analyze recidivism by the factors mentioned above- ethnicity, social class, crime committed, etc. are almost certainly significant factors. Another factor might be the prisons themselves- some might be better at rehabilitating inmates than others. We could then start to think about some of the programs that are offered there and begin to measure their effectiveness. And obviously, we should compare our recidivism rates state to state and with those of other countries.
To develop the response in #2, I think we should also examine the break down of prisoners who return to prison based on economic class and ethnicity. This should lead us to ask very big questions about society as a whole and the support that is given to particular social groups. It should also lead us to consider the position of various ethnic groups and whole class and ethnicity are related to crime.
Yes, rates of prison releases should be used to study recidivism, for reasons suggested in the first post. I also like that post's emphasis on looking at rates of recidivism for various types of crime. I am assuming that a record of violent crime is a good predictor of a high rate of recidivism, since people who commit violent crimes apparently have major problems controlling their impulses. Their crimes are also the ones that can be most threatening and dangerous to people. Apparently recidivism rates are astonishingly high -- close to 70%, according to government statistics. It might be interesting to consider what factors in our culture encourage people to begin committing crimes. In any case, I looked around and found this link, which seems very relevant to your question: http://nij.gov/nij/topics/corrections/recidivism/measuring.htm
I agree that there are many factors which influence recidivism. Repeat offenders tend to repeat for a wide variety of reasons.
Examples: inability to make it in the outside world; inability to change their illegal ways; failure to truly rehabilitate (due to overcrowded prisons); or not being able to face another change (if they have been incarcerated for a while).
All of these, and others not stated, need to be examined when looking at recidivism.
This is complicated, as there are a number of things that affect recidivism. If we are merely looking to see the percentage who return to prison given any and all other factors, then we can get a baseline percentage, but this tells us little. Right now we are releasing many more prisoners after a shorter period of time spent in jail, for purely economic reasons given the cash-strapped status of the states. So with release rates up, will we see a rise in recidivism rates? Who's to say, since the prisoners we release may not have been rehabilitated to as great a degree as people we released in the last ten years, or may be more dangerous hanbitual criminals than typically emerge from prison at other times.
So, as pohnpei says, yes, we need to study release rates, but we also need to take into account the variety of other factors impacting repeat offenders before we base any policies on them.
Of course, the only way to study recidivism is to look at the rates of prisoners who are released, only to return to prison. So what we need to ask is what statistics, exactly, we would want to look at.
In other words, simply looking at the percent of prisoners who return to prison within three years of their release (a typical measure) might be too blunt of a method. Instead, perhaps we need to break the statistics down and look at more meaningful groupings of released prisoners.
It might be more informative, for example, to look at whether criminals imprisoned for specific types of crimes are more like to be returned to prison. Or perhaps we might want to look at the support system (whether it be familial or governmental), or lack thereof, for released prisoners and how that affects their rates of recidivism.
These sorts of measures might tell us more about how to reduce recidivism than simply looking at the percentage of released prisoners overall who return to prison within three years.