The term “recidivism” is used generally to refer to repetitions of behavior. It is usually used in a negative context, to discuss socially unacceptable or morally questionable behavior which is repeated despite punishment or training to discourage the behavior. Especially in the United States, recidivism is specifically associated with the criminal justice system.
The term comes from the Latin roots re, for “repeat” or “again,” and cadere, “to fall.” Recidivism is usually thought of as a falling back which reverses progress, and is sometimes also called backsliding for that reason. This sense of falling back usually implies that recidivism is negative, rather than positive, since it reflects a lapse from acceptable or healthy behavior. As a result, recidivism is generally perceived as undesirable.
Within the context of general society, many people talk about recidivism in the sense of failing to stick with an alcohol or drug treatment program. Many of these programs have high rates of recidivism because they are related to chemical and physical additions, which can be very difficult to treat. Without a conscious effort and a good treatment program, a participant will ultimately slide back into the addition. People may use the term more generally to talk about falling back into bad habits as well, although people usually do not apply the term to themselves.
In terms of law enforcement, recidivism refers to any case in which a criminal repeats a crime, despite being punished for it with fines or jail time. The term may be employed for mild crimes, like petty theft, or major ones, like child molestation or murder. Many critics of penal systems look at their rates of recidivism to see whether or not they are effective. A high recidivism rate suggests that a penal system may not be doing its job.
In the criminal sense, recidivism is a serious problem. Crimes of all levels are hurtful for the victims, and most people would like the avoid them. As a result, administrators in a penal system like to believe that people will not repeat crimes after they have been punished for them. Such a repetition suggests the need for new approaches such as therapy or support programs designed to prevent recidivism. Especially with juvenile offenders, there is also a genuine desire for the criminal to go on to lead a life without crime, which can be difficult when crime is the only thing that someone is familiar with.