Recidivism through a New Lens: Feeding Positive Deviance Data into Local Programs


Authors: Lucia Dura and Lauren Perez,

The University of Texas at El Paso, Texas


Recidivism is defined as a person’s relapse into criminal behavior. From 2011 to 2016, the average revocation rate for federal offenders in the WDT was 11 percent higher than the national average: 39% compared to 28% nationally. Teams and organizations tasked with addressing federal recidivism focus on asking, what are the most significant causes of recidivism—a person’s relapse into criminal behavior—and how can these be minimized? In the fall of 2016, representatives from the Western District of Texas’ (WDT) probation office and federal court, with the help of representatives from The University of Texas at El Paso decided to ask a different question, a PD question: Are there any individuals who have recently completed their terms of supervised release or are on their way to completion (within 12 months) despite the demographic, situational, and dispositional odds against them? What enables some moderate to high risk offenders to complete their terms of supervised release without violations? I.e., from the time they begin their supervised release, what are they and the people around doing that makes a difference, is feasible (replicable by their peers) and is uncommon in their peer group?

Since this case study involved former criminal offenders, the PD team faced several logistical constraints, including not being able to meet with the PD individuals as a group. Thus, all meetings took place with one PD individual at a time. After considering each behavior based on the two criteria of feasible and uncommon, a focus group of probation officers and a focus group of released offenders narrowed the PD practices to nine:

  1. A regular prayer or meditation practice
  2. A regular gratitude practice
  3. Choosing a partner who stays out of trouble
  4. Knowing who to call for help
  5. Showing affection to loved ones openly
  6. Setting house rules
  7. Calling their probation officer for help
  8. Telling their probation officer the truth
  9. Having a plan for stressful moments

Some ideas currently being piloted in the intervention phase of this project are a PD checklist for probation officers, telling the stories of PD probation officers to honor their good work, and designing a one-on-one mentoring program that incorporates PD practices.

Read the full case study here.