Crime and Recidivism: A Plague Upon Society

By Christopher Zoukis  Image courtesy hudsonlink.org

When a criminal defendant is charged and convicted of a crime, they are often sentenced to a term of incarceration.  This period of imprisonment is imposed with the expectation that their criminal activities will be stopped and that their time in custody will rehabilitate them so that they will lead a law-abiding life upon release.  The ideal of prisons is that they are designed to help in this rehabilitational process -- to be tools that not only punish past crime, but also deter future crime and prepare offenders for a law-abiding life post-release.

  •  As a deterrent, prisons may be working.  Crime rates are indeed dropping (a positive sign), but recidivism rates remain persistently high (a negative sign).  This can mean a number of things and leads many experts to rate the effectiveness of prisons as a deterrent to crime as inconclusive.
  •  As a punishment, prisons are "working," in the sense that millions of people are serving time in prison, and this time is not a pleasant experience.  Categorically, inmates do not want to return to prison due to the harsh conditions found therein and the damage these correctional facilities incur on those subjected to them.  There is the additional "bonus" of employing more guards and other staff.
  •  As a place for rehabilitation, prisons are failing, and they are failing miserably, with recidivism rates remaining sky high.  The fact is that most released prisoners will return to a life of crime.  This often boils down to them not being employable, but regardless of the reason, they are returning to crime in droves.

Once a person is charged with a crime and sentenced to a term of imprisonment, the assumption is that after their time in prison they will do whatever it takes to avoid going back.  Yet, in the last several decades, there has been an increase in the number of released prisoners that have ended up back in the criminal justice system.  This is known as recidivism.

Why Do Inmates Return to Crime?

Society has generally blamed those incarcerated for returning to crime, and, eventually, prison.  This is often done while pointing out recidivist's perceived character defects.  But that line of thinking ignores a very alarming reality: most prisoners have few, if any, opportunities and choices when they leave prison.  Often, the only lifestyle welcoming them with open arms -- and a job -- is that of crime.

According to John Schmitt and Kris Warner's 2011 "Ex-Offenders and the Labor Market," conviction of any type of crime reduces the likelihood of employment by as much as 30%.  Employers simply don't want to take a chance on ex-offenders.  When ex-prisoners' educational levels are taken into account -- according to T.A. Ryan's "Literacy Training and Reintegration of Offenders," fewer than 50% of prisoners have even a 6th grade formal education -- it truly does appear as if released prisoners are often doomed to failure.  According to http://www.prisonlawblog.com/, culture plays a role as well, and if inmates are placed back into their previous environments without anything to help them build a better life, it becomes almost expected that they will lapse back into a life of crime.

This is why it should come as little surprise that in 1994 the most common reason for rearrest were the crimes of burglary, robbery, and car theft, according to Patrick A. Langan and David J. Levin's report "Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994."  These are all crimes directly related to income.  These crimes had a rearrest rate at over 70%.  Rape and murder, two crimes in which the procurement of money is rarely the goal, had a rearrest rate of less than 3%.  These results are not a coincidence.

Recidivism is a Major Social Problem

According to /, recidivism is one of the leading causes of prison overcrowding, and represents a significant drain on local, state, and national economies.  For every released inmate that returns to a life of crime -- and when caught, prison -- there is a new victim, more taxpayer dollars spent on dangerous, overcrowded prisons, and another individual who was unable to abide by the law upon their release from prison (a preventable outcome).  Finding ways to reduce recidivism should be a societal priority, not the means to justify additional draconian sentencing policies and create even more dangerous and violent prison cultures in the hopes of them becoming a deterrent to crime.