Recidivism: Why Do Criminals Repeatedly Offend?

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A common misconception about criminals is that once they commit a crime one time, they will be arrested, imprisoned, learn their lesson about why what they did was wrong, and then never commit another crime again. 

However, this is not usually the case. The vast majority of people who commit crimes will be repeat offenders. That is why when it comes to matters of the criminal justice system, recidivism is a primary concern.

Recidivism Definition: What Is Recidivism?

Recidivism is a fundamental concept in the criminal justice system that helps us better understand the criminal justice system’s core functions: incapacitation, deterrence, and rehabilitation. 

Recidivism refers to the tendency of a person previously convicted to relapse into their previous mode of behavior.

This results in them engaging in criminal acts that will get them rearrested, leading to reconviction and incarceration within three years following their prison release.

Released offenders should be getting their lives together, but instead, they recidivate.

Why Do Criminals Repeatedly Offend?

Several different factors may contribute to recidivism. For example, economic problems may contribute to criminals being repeat offenders, especially for those who live in poverty or are unemployed. It is almost impossible for criminals to find jobs after being released from prison.

Many cannot escape poverty or find the means to get by, so they repeatedly offend as an alternative since they cannot find job security. Research shows that even criminals who want to start their own businesses struggle to succeed. 

Most criminals are prohibited from getting financial assistance or loans to get their business ventures off the ground. Those who manage to start their own business struggle to get customers to buy their products or services because of how negatively their community members view them. 

Family problems may also contribute to recidivism. Recidivism studies show that the majority of criminals who repeatedly offend were not supervised as children and did not receive the amount of love and affection children need to form emotional attachments with others.

For the most part, most criminals’ intellectual, social, and personality development was stunted as a child. 

Furthermore, those who do come from such family backgrounds usually began engaging in criminal activity to get their basic needs, or as a reaction to their rough family life. 

Addiction may also be a contributing factor to recidivism. Research shows that most criminals were exposed to substance use and abuse during their childhood and adolescence, and became addicted at a young age.

Recidivism studies show that most addicts commit crimes to feed their addiction or engage in conflict resulting in violent crimes due to their addiction.

Costs of Recidivism

Recidivism comes at a great cost to the United States Criminal Justice System.

Every year, the United States spends almost 300 billion dollars on police communities and an average of 2.2 million people are incarcerated.

If you add up the cost of the damage to families of those incarcerated, adverse health effects, and potential lost earnings, incarceration costs the criminal justice system about 1.2 trillion dollars per year. 

Not to mention that incarceration perpetuates the cycle of recidivism and costs the quality of people’s lives.

The more people are incarcerated, the more likely their children are to become addicts or be stunted emotionally and mentally and the more likely they are to become criminals, so on and so forth. It is a vicious cycle.

Historical Recidivism

The history of recidivism in the United States Criminal Justice system can be traced way back to mandatory minimums and the 1984 Sentencing Reform Act.

Before the 1980s, judges used federal sentencing guidelines to consider the merits of a case. However, since 1984, judges have not been allowed to use the merits of cases to sentence guilty people.

The introduction of mandatory minimums meant sentences were no longer up to interpretation.

Before 1984, offenders who did not have a history of criminal activity were more often than not let off or received more minor sentences.

The 1984 Sentencing Reform Act made it mandatory for judges to hand down a sentence minimum. Though Congress viewed this as harsh at the time, the idea behind mandatory minimums was to deter people from committing crimes or engaging in criminal behavior. 

The criminal justice system also began to extend sentences, even for those who were rehabilitated. Criminals could no longer qualify for parole and leave earlier for good behavior, meaning rehabilitated people stayed locked up even when it was no longer necessary.

Ways to Stop Repeat Offenders

Contrary to the idea behind the 1984 Sentencing Reform Act, research suggests that the best way to stop recidivism is to stop people from going to prison in the first place.

However, given that the United States Criminal Justice System is based on a model that tries to prevent crime after the fact, instead of before it occurs, we usually employ one of four sanctions to reduce recidivism: incapacitation, deterrence, rehabilitation, and re-entry programs.

1. Incapacitation

Incapacitation is a sanction that removes offenders from the community to attempt to prevent people from committing crimes. Incapacitation is the first step in preventative measures used to stop repeat offenders.

Examples may include, but are not limited to, probation, parole, or using ankle bracelets to track individuals. Incapacitation restricts people’s individual freedoms they normally have in society. 

People are not restrained or locked up with incapacitation and it cannot rectify crimes that have already been committed. However, incapacitation is the first of the four goals of imprisonment. 

2. Deterrence

Deterrence denotes whether a completed or imposed sanction stops people from committing a certain crime.

Deterrence is the second step in preventative measures used to stop repeat offenders. It is based on the idea that criminals will be less likely to become repeat offenders if they are instilled with doubt and fear of consequences.

For example, the presence of police officers around criminals may be a form of deterrence. 

However, recidivism studies show that deterrence may not be the best preventative tactic to stop criminals from becoming repeat offenders because its effectiveness is based on individual circumstances, not the general population.

Furthermore, research shows that consequences, such as the potential threat of the death penalty, does not deter people from being repeat offenders.

3. Rehabilitation

Rehabilitation refers to the programs designed to help previously convicted criminals address their deficits or needs and restore them to “normal life.” Rehabilitation is the third step in preventative measures used to stop recidivism.

Most programs are designed to help criminals learn conventional behaviors through modeling and observation and use positive reinforcement to help reduce criminal behaviors. 

Research shows that participation in adult rehabilitation programs is linked to a significant reduction in recidivism. However, some rehabilitation programs and treatment services have been more successful at reducing recidivism than others.

The most successful rehabilitation programs were those that used drug court, group work, counseling, and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). 

Other rehabilitation programs such as restorative interventions, individual case management, academic programs, work-related programs, supportive residential programs, and intensive supervision such as parole caseloads or reduced probation have not shown any significant signs of reducing recidivism. 

Re-entry Programs and Post Release

Re-entry programs help reduce the chance of recidivism by giving former offenders the chance to support themselves through productive, legitimate work and to become functioning, contributing members of society. 

Re-entry programs are the fourth step in preventative measures used to reduce recidivism rates. Research shows that for criminals to succeed with the re-entry process, it must begin while they are still incarcerated. 

Facility programs and correctional staff should help incarcerated individuals make positive community relationships and gain a pro-social worldview.

Staff should also help those who are incarcerated work through their mental health concerns and any substance abuse issues. This is because these are harder to work through once they are out of prison, and may contribute to their chances of returning to prison. 

Re-entry programs should also help those who are incarcerated earn an education and develop the skills they will need to survive outside of prison, as well as help them find a place to live and a place to work.

Successful re-entry programs use community resources and other services to help their programs grow, as well as help those who are imprisoned to succeed after their release. 

Wrapping Up

Overall, recidivism is a self-perpetuating cycle. The current criminal justice system is not designed to help criminals, and yet people still wonder why they never get out of the system. It is a vicious cycle that makes it hard for criminals to turn their lives around.

Only by understanding the current system can we work towards changing it and changing the future lives of those who have been imprisoned. 

Criminals do not have to become repeat offenders if we help put the proper measures in place, but criminals cannot always make the right changes for themselves. We have to help those in our community when they are struggling to make the country a better place for us all.

About the author

After earning his MBA from Benedictine University, Ron was looking for a new challenge and stumbled on the idea of helping the formerly incarcerated.

Using what he learned, Ron developed this website as a free resource and has worked with his team​ to continue answering questions for those in need.

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