Popular opinion suggests that those convicted of terrorism related offenses are very likely to re-offend. But how accurate is this belief?
In response to 9/11, Congress enacted several legislative measures, such as the USA PATRIOT Act and the Homeland Security Act, designed to prevent a similar attack from ever happening again, through aiding in the detection of terrorist activities, punishing those involved in these activities, and deterring individuals from engaging in violent extremism. Since these bills have been enacted, there have been over 560 individuals convicted of domestic and international terrorism, a sharp increase from pre-9/11 terrorist convictions. While the number of convictions is on one hand reassuring, it also presents a disturbing question for Congress: What happens when these convicted terrorists are released from prison?
In May of 2017, Florida Congressman John Rutherford introduced a bill to confront this issue, which would require that when an individual convicted of “a federal crime of terrorism” is released from prison, the Secretary of Homeland Security notify all local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies.
This new Terrorist Release Announcements to Counter Extremist Recidivism Act (TRACER), comes at a time when the recidivism rate is still unknown, and lawmakers are hesitant to enact a bill which has no real empirical evidence supporting it. Policy related studies require extensive time following implementation before any meaningful analysis can be made, so even if this bill were to be passed, it would take a considerable length of time to examine a sizeable enough sample of convicted terrorists who have been identified, arrested, convicted, sentenced, incarcerated, released, and liberated long enough to recidivate.
One report, The Terrorism Recidivism Study (TRS) led by sociology professor Omi Hodwitz, argues that restrictive measures such as the terrorism registry proposed in the TRACER Act are unnecessary and even unjustified. In addition, the report indicates that implementing such measures may be costly on several fronts.
The TRS outlines two primary goals: The first, to examine the rates of recidivism for individuals convicted of terrorism-related offenses in the United States following 9/11, and depending on recidivism rates, the second goal is to identify factors that separate political recidivists from a matched sample of apolitical recidivists.
TRS coders analyzed the offenders using 58 variables grouped into five thematic categories: demographic characteristics, event description, arrest/conviction/sentencing information, release details, and reports of recidivism. Out of the 561 offenders included in the TRS sample, only nine recidivated over the entire period of analysis from 2001-2018; this brings the recidivism rate to just 1.6%. Hodwitz writes that addressing the first goal of determining recidivism rates has in turn deemed the second goal futile, as the sample size is far too low to determine any real patterns that would distinguish political recidivists from the apolitical.
Of the nine recidivists in the TRS, eight were men, seven were white, and their ages ranged between 19 and 46 years. Hodwitz found that original convictions for the recidivists were a mixture of non-violent and violent offenses, including fraud, material support, firearms possession, conspiracy to commit murder, and using weapons of mass destruction. All had been incarcerated for their original convictions, with an average sentence of 16.3 years, and all who had been released had been granted an average of 5.2 years of supervision. All had a history of organizational affiliation, including Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the Islamic State, Hezbollah, and Al-Fuqra.
Five of the nine recidivists reoffended while still incarcerated, and were charged with attempted murder and attempting to radicalize others and were thus never actually released; this reduces the total number of released recidivists to just four. Among these post-release recidivists, there was a mix of offenses, including drug-related crimes, fraud, and two cases of attempted murder, both of which Hodwitz says do not appear to be politically motivated in any way. It was determined that these two attempted murder offenders sought to either eliminate witnesses or exact revenge on those perceived to be responsible for their conviction. In contrast, those who attempted to radicalize others were clearly politically motivated.
So why is recidivism so rare for US-based politically-motivated offenders? Hodwitz offers three possible explanations but admits that she doesn’t have a conclusive answer. The first is the most likely of the three and suggests that the US criminal justice system is able to effectively rehabilitate or deter politically-motivated offences.
The second explanation is that political offenders may simply take longer to recidivate when compared to an apolitical population: political offenders require a more extensive observation period, so a 10-year or 15-year follow-up may very well produce recidivism rates that are similar to those of apolitical offenders. However, the TRS data do not exactly support this explanation, as among the offenders released, approximately 45% were released at least 10 years prior to the TRS, with minimal signs of recidivism. In light of this lack of supporting evidence, long-term registry or surveillance measures are difficult to defend.
Hodwitz’s third explanation is more troubling: political offenders could actually be better at disguising their activities the second time around. Upon release they might possibly reoffend at rates comparable to or even greater than apolitical offenders but do so with greater care and caution so as to make their activities less discernable to legal authorities. This implies that there could be any number of offenders listed in the TRS, currently engaged in political crime who have yet to be discovered by law enforcement. If low rates really are the result of discrete reoffending or recidivism that goes undetected, Hodwitz suggests restrictive policies, such as the TRACER Act, that increase tracking and surveillance of political releasees could be warranted, as increased monitoring would improve chances that post-release criminal activity is exposed and thwarted. But it’s a big “if”.
Fortunately, the third explanation is the least likely for recidivism rates recorded in the TRS because authorities are already more inclined to intensify surveillance of political releasees, greatly increasing the likelihood that reoffending behaviors would be identified. Because of the fact that law enforcement applies rigorous surveillance of politically-oriented offenders, this suggests that low recidivism rates do not reflect a lack of detection, making the TRACER Act potentially unwarranted.
The TRS indicates that current surveillance of releasees seems to lead only to detection of parole violations and minor offenses, and therefore the ends that congressman Rutherford presents in his TRACER Act don’t necessarily justify the means. It’s also worth noting that such a registry and other surveillance protocols could provide grounds for over-surveillance of racial or religious communities.
Hodwitz concludes that politically-motivated offenders who have repaid their debt to society should be treated no differently than apolitical offenders, and to fail to do so would be unjust, She says policy measures that aim to increase tracking and surveillance of politically-motivated releasees are, at best, “questionable”.
According to the study, methods such as the TRACER Act that propose an offender registry can incur serious costs on a financial, legal, and ethical level, with very little benefit. Offenders convicted of terrorism-related crimes are unlikely to recidivate and, when they do, their offenses tend to be minor violations, and at such a low rate (less than two recidivists for every 100 releasees), that it would be difficult to argue for increased surveillance.
The question still to be answered is exactly why recidivism rates are exceptionally low, and while the TRS still hasn’t arrived at a definite answer, it’s clear that there are substantial changes in attitudes of these offenders within the time of incarceration, making them far less of a threat after release. A further study looking into criminal justice rehabilitation programs for convicted terrorists, such as has been explored with substance abuse, could yield results that would help shape the future of recidivism prevention.