What is a Recidivist?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A recidivist is someone who keeps being arrested for the same crime. Recidivism is a common concern for people in the criminal justice community, with some studies suggesting that more than half of criminals may engage in recidivism after serving their time for a crime. In several nations, there are measures in place which are designed to curb recidivism by providing rehabilitation to people who commit crimes, with the goal of helping them abstain from crime in the future.

A recidivist might again commit a crime for which he has served time in prison.
A recidivist might again commit a crime for which he has served time in prison.

Recidivists may commit major or minor crimes. Their criminal behavior tends to follow patterns as a result of the fact that they have grown accustomed to engaging in it. For example, a young thief may start stealing again immediately after release from prison because theft may be the only method of surviving which the thief is familiar with. The recidivist may also be tempted back into crime as a result of associating with other criminals or people with whom the recidivist was involved before being imprisoned or jailed.

Studies suggest that more than half of criminals may engage in recidivism after serving their time in prison for a crime.
Studies suggest that more than half of criminals may engage in recidivism after serving their time in prison for a crime.

Juvenile offenders are an area of special concern when it comes to recidivism. Many advocates argue that young offenders have the potential to stop engaging in criminal behavior if they are given a chance, but it can be hard to make that chance happen. A child from an impoverished neighborhood with limited opportunities, for example, may turn to crime at a young age, and may potentially engage in increasingly serious crimes over time because the child only has community behavior as a model and there are no role models which suggest that the child has other options.

Some prisons focus more on rehabilitation and providing assistance than others. Recidivism among people such as murderers and sex offenders is an especially big public safety issue, and criminal justice workers have increasingly recognized that jail time is not always enough to break behavior patterns for these habitual offenders. Providing things like counseling, placement in structured environments after release on parole, and long-term support can sometimes prevent a criminal from becoming a recidivist.

In some nations, the criminal justice system is structured in a way which is designed to discourage recidivism by exposing people to increasingly harsh penalties for each repeat offense. For example, someone who drives under the influence might be subjected to a fine and temporary license suspension on the first offense, but runs the risk of losing his or her license if she or he becomes a recidivist.

Individuals suffering from substance abuse issues may be prone to recidivism.
Individuals suffering from substance abuse issues may be prone to recidivism.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Sex offenders are often recidivists, because their preference is for something that is twisted and wrong. They cannot control it, no more than a man can control his attraction to a woman.

My neighbor was attracted to young boys. He went to prison for molestation, and he only had to serve a few years. Once he got out, he had to do it again. This was what his sex drive was based around.

He had gotten out on good behavior, because he acted like he had changed so that he could get out and find more young boys. His second sentence is set to be much longer, but even if he’s in his eighties when he gets out, he will still want the same thing.


My sister could not control her need to steal. She had plenty of money to buy things with, but that didn’t matter. It was the thrill of the process that she desired. It made life interesting for her, and it had become an addiction as strong as smoking.

She was twenty when she first got caught. She had wadded up a dress and stuffed it into her purse. She forgot about the alarm, and when she walked out of the store into the mall, it went off. She was arrested and had to serve time.

She got out, and within two months, she was back in for shoplifting once more. She served a longer sentence this time, but it didn’t help. She got arrested at third time for the same thing, and she stayed up for a long time after that.

I asked her if she had gotten any counseling while in jail, and she said that she had, but it didn’t help. The counselor was great, and what he said to her made sense. She just needed the thrill in her life, like some people need drugs or alcohol.


Often, recidivists will show signs of their specific problems as juveniles. They may even begin their lives of crime at a young age. My brother did, and he can’t seem to overcome his urges.

He raped a girl in a park at night when he was sixteen. He served time, got some counseling, and got out. Within three months of his release at age twenty-one, he started raping again.

The cops had trouble catching him for awhile. He was a serial rapist, and he was determined to remain anonymous. He lived with me and my mom, and he would come home in the middle of the night all paranoid and defensive.

As hard as it was to turn him in, I strongly suspected he was the rapist, and I had to tell the cops. I knew that no girl was safe out there as long as he was on the loose.


My cousin is a recidivist. He just cannot stay away from crystal meth. He went to prison for making and selling it, and even after completing six months in a boot camp type facility with no drugs, he returned to it.

He got out on probation, and he violated it. He got caught with meth in his car during a traffic stop. He went back to prison for several more years, and this time, they put him in mandatory rehab.

I guess the high was just too powerful, or regular life as a clean individual just too unbearable. He started making it in his house again, and once more, he is back in prison.

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