American Journal of Criminal Justice

, Volume 44, Issue 3, pp 353–375 | Cite as

Prior Record and Recidivism Risk

  • Rhys HesterEmail author


An individual’s prior record can have a pronounced impact on the punishment he or she receives for a new offense, substantially increasing the likelihood and duration of an incarceration sentence. Not only does prior record contribute to mass incarceration, but prior research has consistently shown that criminal history mediates race effects and exacerbates disparities. In guidelines jurisdictions, criminal history enhancements are partially or primarily employed as proxies for risk prevention. But for the most part these scores were not developed empirically, and, to date, whether scores are valid predictors of risk has gone unexplored. This paper uses survival analysis and area under the curve analysis to examine the predictive efficacy of the Pennsylvania Prior Record Score using a sample of offenders sentenced in Pennsylvania and followed-up for 3 years after release (n = 130,758). The results show that some of the Pennsylvania PRS categories fail to accurately distinguish among offenders based on their likelihood of recidivism. Further, some of the key score components that increase the PRS (and the punishment imposed) have marginal effects on the predictive efficacy of the score, often only increasing the prediction accuracy by a single percentage point. By re-engineering the PRS categories and sub-components, this jurisdiction could recommend less punishment in some cases without any apparent increase in risk to public safety.


Sentencing Criminal history Recidivism Punishment theories 



My thanks to Richard Frase and Julian Roberts for comments on an earlier draft. I’m also grateful to Mark Bergstrom, Leigh Tinik, and the other staff and affiliates of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing for use of the data and for feedback on this project. I served as Deputy Director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing during much of the research and writing of this project; any views expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the Commission, its members, or staff.


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Copyright information

© Southern Criminal Justice Association 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Sociology, Anthropology & Criminal JusticeClemson UniversityClemsonUSA

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