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What is Recidivism?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 24, 2024
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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.

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Mary McMahon
By 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.

Discussion Comments

By anon328006 — On Apr 01, 2013

@Miriam98: I do not completely agree with you about all child molesters getting life in prison. There are the rare few who actually make a mistake and have sex with a minor, which is a consensual act but because they are under 18 it is considered an act of rape due to statutory.

If the criminal did not have a criminal record before that one incident occurred, would you really say that there will be a repeat offense when that person gets out of prison and suggest that they spend their entire life in prison for a one time mistake? I think crimes should be judged and sentenced based on a criminal's background both criminal and otherwise. Look at the whole person's history of behavior and judge accordingly with the statutes of the law to fit the crime committed based on that.

The likelihood of people re-offending is also because of how society deals with them when they get out of prison. If society treats them like convicts and won't help them adjust back into society, of course they are going to re-offend so they go back to where they are treated better. Sorry, just my opinion on this subject.

By Charred — On Jun 03, 2011

@Moldova - Can someone really change in prison? I think they can. But once they get out, they’ve got a problem-it’s called a criminal record. Every employer will know about it, or can find out easily enough. So who will hire them? It’s a gamble. Frankly, I don’t know the answer to that question.

Some guy came knocking on my door selling magazines. When I asked him why he didn’t just work a “regular” job, he said nobody would hire him because he had a felony record. I don’t know if that was true or part of a sales pitch meant to elicit sympathy so I would buy his magazines.

If it is true, then I suppose there are some unconventional routes back to employment. For those who can’t work this way, then I suppose it’s understandable why they would make their living the old-fashioned way (through crime).

By miriam98 — On Jun 01, 2011

@David09 - Yeah, I think I read somewhere that about two-thirds of criminals are released within 3 years. This includes all criminals, drug, property, violent, etc. If you ask me, I have extremely strong convictions about recidivist rates for rapists and child molesters. These people cannot be let loose within three years.

For child molesters, I think life in prison would be good. I’m sorry for sounding harsh, but society cannot afford that kind of crime twice. You molest a child, and you’ve destroyed the rest of their life. One guy in our area was arrested on child molestation charges and he got life in prison—and that’s fair in my book.

By David09 — On May 29, 2011

@cupcake15 - I think judges and jurors should take recidivism rates into account when determining the length of a sentence to impose upon a criminal. If, statistically speaking, 60 percent of drug dealers lapse into their former behavior within 3 years of being released from prison, then I think that minimum sentence imposed should be no less than five or ten years.

Maybe after that much time in prison, they will have mulled over what their next move will be after they get out—and a relapse might not seem like such a good idea.

I think many career criminals realize that they get little more than a slap on the wrist, except for extremely violent crimes, and so they game the system to their advantage. My conviction is that longer sentences will result in lower recidivism rates for all criminals.

By comfyshoes — On May 29, 2011

@Cupcake15 -You are right but there are some crimes in which the recidivism rate is so high that maybe the prisoners should remain in prison until we can learn why this is the case because if not they might put the general public at risk.

By cupcake15 — On May 29, 2011

@Moldova - I agree to a point, but I think that it might be really difficult for someone who is a career criminal to turn their life around and seek legitimate work. Part of the problem I think is that they would have to want to change and some people are not ready to make a change.

I think that if some of the prisoners were involved in a controlled speaking circuit in which they could talk about their crimes to juvenile offenders they might be able to help young kids turn their life around and it might make them feel good enough about themselves to start making a change for the better.

They really need a lot of therapy and educational training in order to see other options beside their usual life of crime, because crime is what they know and sometimes people are reluctant to learn something new.

By Moldova — On May 29, 2011

I think that the criminology recidivism rates are probably highest when the prison inmates don’t take advantage of the educational opportunities that there are available in prison.

I know that if the prisoner were forced to learn a new trade, I bet the recidivism rate would go down. I think that some prisoners are repeat offenders because they feel that a life of crime is all they know. They really need to be exposed to positive role models so that they can see alternative lifestyles rather than resorting to committing crimes.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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