Study Suggests Those Convicted of Terrorism Offenses Less Likely to Reoffend After Release

  • Recidivism rates of convicted terrorists have been considerably lower than those convicted of other felonies
  • This may call into question the value of intensified post-release surveillance `

Since 9/11, more than 550 individuals have been convicted of international terrorism-related offenses in U.S. federal courts alone. By the middle of this decade many of these were being released, and concern began to rise about what might happen next.

In 2017, Rep. John Rutherford (R-Fla.) introduced the Terrorist Release Announcements to Counter Extremist Recidivism (TRACER) Act, obliging the secretary of Homeland Security to notify all federal and local law enforcement authorities when a convicted terrorist is released.

It was difficult to predict how these individuals would behave: Would they be more or less likely to reoffend than ordinary criminals? Whether they were religious fanatics, or other kinds of extremists, would the mission to which they attached themselves make them more likely to reoffend?

Dr. Omi Hodwitz, assistant professor at the University of Idaho and a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland, decided to investigate. She constructed a database of evidence, the Terrorism Recidivism Study (TRS), which looked at 848 cases between 9/11 and March 6, 2018, and then focused in on the 561 cases that met precise criteria and were not individuals who have been deported or had died or otherwise did not qualify.

Results showed that reoffending/recidivism rates for this group were very low – just nine out of the 561, or 1.6 percent. Compared with convictions for other felonies, in 2018 44 percent of one sample of state prisoners reviewed by the Bureau of Justice Statistics had been rearrested within the first year.

“To put it simply, political offenders were less likely to recidivate than apolitical offenders,” Hodwitz said.

Does the study shed light on why this is so? The demographics of the convicted terrorists were almost identical to the apolitical prison population in the U.S. At this stage the study does not give a clear answer. However, the following factors were considered:

  1. Are convicted terrorists more careful and discreet in their reoffending, and thus evading detection? Hodwitz thinks this unlikely, as there has been such an increase in surveillance of all things related to terrorism, including the USA PATRIOT Act, that there would surely be evidence of it by now. Some 45 percent of these convicted terrorists have been out of jail for 10 years.
  2. Is there a longer recidivism time lag for politically motivated terrorists compared to apolitical offenders? Again, the study found this unlikely, for similar reasons – if this was going to happen, it would have been observable by now.
  3. Are politically motivated offenders essentially less likely to reoffend than apolitical offenders? The study leans toward this conclusion. Even where reoffending has occurred, the study notes they were rarely for serious offences. The study contains data on a sub-sample that is analyzed in some detail on this point.

“The results reported here suggest that offenders convicted of terrorism-related crimes are unlikely to recidivate and, when they do, their offenses tend to be minor violations,” Hodwitz wrote. “In light of these findings, policy measures that aim to increase tracking and surveillance of politically motivated releasees are, at best, questionable. Measures such as the TRACER Act that propose the creation of an offender registry can incur costs on a financial, legal, and ethical level, and may have very little benefit.”

“While extremist offenders do recidivate, these numbers appear to be so low (less than two recidivists for every 100 releasees), that it would be difficult to argue that the ends justify the means,” she added.

Phil Price is a multilingual writer and translator based in London, UK. A graduate of Oxford University, Phil went on to hold senior management positions in several major British and German companies, and spent time living and working in Germany and Poland as well the UK. For HSToday, Phil reviews the latest findings from academic research and international studies into all aspects of international terrorism and presents the key trends and insights.

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