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Recidivism Is a Core Criminal Justice Concern

Recidivism is one of the most fundamental concepts in criminal justice. It refers to a person's relapse into criminal behavior, often after the person receives sanctions or undergoes intervention for a previous crime.
Date Published
October 2, 2008

Recidivism is measured by criminal acts that resulted in rearrest, reconviction or return to prison with or without a new sentence during a three-year period following the prisoner's release.

Recidivism research is embedded throughout NIJ-sponsored research in sentencing, corrections and policy intervention evaluations. Many NIJ-funded studies of community supervision depend on recidivism measurement to inform probation and parole policy.

Recidivism is an important feature when considering the core criminal justice topics of incapacitation, specific deterrence and rehabilitation.

  • Incapacitation refers to the effect of a sanction to stop people from committing crime by removing the offender from the community.
  • Specific deterrence is the terminology used to denote whether a sanction stops people from committing further crime, once the sanction has been imposed or completed.
  • Rehabilitation refers to the extent to which a program is implicated in the reduction of crime by "repairing" the individual in some way by addressing his or her needs or deficits.

An important connection exists between the concept of recidivism and the growing body of research on criminal desistance. Desistance refers to the process by which a person arrives at a permanent state of nonoffending. In effect, an offender released from prison will either recidivate or desist. To the extent that interventions and sanctions affect the process of desistance, the research overlaps.

Desistance is usually measured as a "discrete state," researchers for the National Consortium on Violence Research noted in a 2001 study. They advocated considering desistance to be a developmental process and developed a statistical model for future research. [1]

Evaluating prisons. Recidivism has also been implicated in the performance of prisons and has been used to study the difference between the effectiveness of privately and publicly managed prisons. [2]

National Statistics on Recidivism

Bureau of Justice Statistics studies have found high rates of recidivism among released prisoners. Examines the recidivism patterns of former prisoners during a 9-year follow-up period.[3] The researchers found that:

  • The 401,288 state prisoners released in 2005 had 1,994,000 arrests during the 9-year period, an average of 5 arrests per released prisoner. Sixty percent of these arrests occurred during years 4 through 9.
  • An estimated 68% of released prisoners were arrested within 3 years, 79% within 6 years, and 83% within 9 years.
  • Eighty-two percent of prisoners arrested during the 9-year period were arrested within the first 3 years.
  • Almost half (47%) of prisoners who did not have an arrest within 3 years of release were arrested during years 4 through 9.
  • Forty-four percent of released prisoners were arrested during the first year following release, while 24% were arrested during year-9.

More about measuring recidivism.

[note 1] From "An Empirical Framework for Studying Desistance as a Process", by S.D. Bushway, A.R. Piquero, L.M. Broidy, E. Cauffman, and P. Mazerolle, Criminology 39(2)(2001): 491-516. For more about desistance, see "Understanding Desistance from Crime," 2001, NCJ 192543 (pp. 1-69), and "Advancing Knowledge About Desistance," Feb. 2007, NCJ 217616 (pp. 125-134).

[note 2] See Measuring Prison Performance: Government Privatization and Accountability, by G.G. Gaes, S.D. Camp, J.B. Nelson, and W.G. Saylor, Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2004.

[note 3] Alper, Mariel, Durose, Matthew R., Markman, Joshua, 2018 Update on Prisoner Recidivism: A 9-Year Follow-up Period (2005-2014) (pdf, 31 pages), Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report, May 2018, NCJ 250975.

National Institute of Justice, "Recidivism Is a Core Criminal Justice Concern," October 2, 2008, nij.ojp.gov:
https://nij.ojp.gov/topics/articles/recidivism-core-criminal-justice-concern
Date Created: October 2, 2008