Recidivism Essay

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Recidivism refers to the repetition of behaviors that society sanctions, particularly those related to criminal offenses and substance abuse. In criminology, recidivism refers specifically to the rate at which people who have been released from prison are rearrested, reconvicted, or returned to prison (with or without a new sentence) during a specified period of time following the prisoner’s release. Those persons are also known as “repeat” or “chronic” offenders.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), which conducted a groundbreaking study of recidivism in 15 states in 2002, of the 272,111 persons released from prisons in 1994, 67.5 percent were rear-rested for a new felony or serious misdemeanor within 3 years of release. Of those 272,111 persons, 46.9 percent were reconvicted of a new crime and 25.4 percent were resentenced to prison for a new crime. In addition, 26.4 percent were back in prison within 3 years because of violations of some technical condition of their parole, such as failure to attend an appointment with a parole officer or failing a drug test.

Most studies of recidivism focus on individual-level characteristics and find that people with prior offenses, drug addictions, and low levels of education tend to offend again. The 2002 BJS study found that men were more likely than women to recidivate in each of the four measurement categories they selected: rearrested, reconvicted, resentenced to prison for a new crime, and returned to prison with or without a new prison sentence. Black people were more likely than whites to recidivate. Higher rates of recidivism occurred among prisoners who were younger when released from prison. These data may underestimate the rate of recidivism, as the measures were based on statistics gathered from only 15 states and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Official crime data, including the Uniform Crime Report, are known to underestimate the crime rate, as demonstrated by surveys of victims, such as the National Crime Victimization Survey, as well as by self-report surveys of criminal involvement.

In a now-classic study that defined the concept of “career criminals,” Marvin Wolfgang and his associates followed the criminal careers of a cohort of 9,945 boys born in Philadelphia in 1945 from birth until age 18. The most widely recognized finding of this research was the identification of the “chronic offender”: today referred to as “the chronic 6 percent”: a group of 627 boys from the total sample were responsible for 52 percent of all the offenses committed by the cohort.

Today, criminologists increasingly focus their research on desistance from crime or strategies for deterrence from crime rather than recidivism. The contemporary thinking is that by focusing on recidivism, or why people repeatedly engage in behaviors that return them to prison, we fail to consider the factors that lead people away from criminal careers. Desistance is conceptualized as the causal process by which people cease engagement in criminal activity. Most popular in current criminology are developmental theories that consider criminal careers across the life span. This research asks why and how people first engage in, continue in, and eventually terminate criminal activities. Crime deterrence strategies are popular with the law enforcement community and by proponents of the rational choice theories in criminology. In this view, people who engage in crime are rational actors who choose to break the law after weighing the costs of benefits of such behavior. The theory, in keeping with classical theories in criminology, assumes that the threat of punishment will influence and control decisions to engage in crime. One model in particular, specific deterrence, advocates meting out harsh punishment for people convicted of crime, arguing that severe sanctions will ensure that people who commit a crime and pay a high price for that deed will not repeat an offense.

Unfortunately, research finds that people who serve prison sentences do not have lower recidivism rates than people who serve more lenient community service sentences for the same or similar crimes, particularly in the case of white-collar criminals. In some instances, harsh sanctions have also provoked defiance instead of deterrence. The more times a person has been in prison, the more likely that person will return to incarceration within a year of release.

U.S. public policy now focuses on incapacitation, supplanting the goal of rehabilitation, since apprehension and punishment have had little effect on chronic offenders. The problem with this approach is that no confirmation exists that such policies as mandatory sentencing for violent or drug-related crimes and “three strikes” policies either reduce the crime rate or incarcerate only a small percentage of people who commit the most crimes.

With more than 7 million people under some sort of correctional control in 2005, and more than 2 million people incarcerated, approximately 600,000 people are released from U.S. prisons each year. In a process called “reentry,” persons released from prison often return to live in the neighborhoods they left when they were arrested. Access to employment upon release is one important factor in desistance from crime. Unfortunately, funding for reentry programs fails to meet the demand, thus perpetuating the phenomenon of the revolving door of prison.


  1. Freeman, Richard. 2003. “Can We Close the Revolving Door?” Paper prepared for the Reentry Roundtable, The Employment Dimensions of Prisoner Reentry: Understanding the Nexus between Prisoner Reentry and Work, New York, May 19-20. Retrieved March 29, 2017 (
  2. Kubrin, Charis E. and Eric A. Stewart. 2006. “Predicting Who Reoffends: The Neglected Role of Neighborhood Context in Recidivism Studies.” Criminology 44(1):165-98.
  3. Langan, Patrick and David Levin. 2002. Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994. NCJ 193427. Retrieved March 25, 2017 (
  4. Laub, John H. and Robert J. Sampson. 2001. “Understanding Desistance from Crime.” Crime and Justice: A Review of Research 28:1-69.
  5. Wolfgang, Marvin, Robert Figlio, and Thorsten Sellin. 1987. Delinquency in a Birth Cohort. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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