Reducing Recidivism Essay

Depending on the offense, recidivism rates vary for criminals. Some criminologists consider recidivism to mean any act of re-offending, while other specialists consider committing only the same crime to mean recidivism. Black men are more likely to reoffend according to data included here, with social inequity being blamed for this disparity. Access to education, vital job opportunities, and a healthy social network are some necessary considerations for an offender's successful reentry into the community. Pedophiles are a class of offenders for which treatment may never work; studies show that various interventions can lower a pedophile's ability to assault children but not remove the desire to offend for these and other sexual offenders. Female and juvenile offenders are also discussed, and information regarding programs aimed at reducing recidivism is provided.

Keywords Department of Corrections; Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Illness (DSM-5); Driving Under the Influence (DUI); Incarceration; Juvenile Offender; Pedophilia; Racial Inequality; Recidivism; Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI); The Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative (SVORI)

Criminal Recidivism



Recidivism is the act of reoffending or relapsing into criminal behavior for a person who has already been incarcerated. It can mean that an offender commits the same crime for which he was originally incarcerated, or it can mean that he has offended in a different way while in jail, on probation, on parole, or after a period of time once reentering society. For practical use, recidivism here means reoffending in any manner after a period of incarceration. The issues with regard to recidivism are many and cross societal, legal and monetary boundaries.

Many people recidivate because they know no other way of life. In most instances, incarceration is a temporary fix for an immediate problem. Eventually, inmates will return to the societies they have offended. Unfortunately, for many of the inmates sent home, being outside of prison becomes the temporary situation. Most studies report that up to two-thirds of the inmates released will reoffend within three years of walking away from prison life. They will violate parole or probation or they will commit new crimes, being arrested and prosecuted and then placed back into the hands of the United States Department of Corrections.

For a majority of recidivists, incarceration has done nothing to assist them with the transition from convict to everyday citizen. They went in without an education; they came out without an education. The same can be said for job skills, social skills, and socioeconomic status. In 2003 the Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative (SVORI) was started by the federal government to fund nationwide reentry programs focusing on education, employment training, and personal and family counseling. SVORI's $100 million budget was spread out between state and local agencies and then distributed to various civic organizations. Lattimore (2007) points out that there is an inequity in such a distribution: "$100 million represents less than $200 for each of the more than 600,000 individuals released to parole each year. Further, the SVORI funds were spread over three years" (p. 89). Ironically, the SVORI program was not refunded after its three year trial period.

Re-Entry Programs

In a report for the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP), Aos, Miller and Drake (2006) analyzed 291 evaluations of offender reentry programs and noted that many weren't successful, despite government funding. While some programs show no difference in reducing recidivism, others were positively correlated with recidivism reduction. For example, adult drug courts have been shown to reduce recidivism by almost 11 percent for those incarcerated for drug offenses. On the other hand, education and cognitive-behavioral treatment has been shown to cause no reduction in recidivism for domestic violence offenders (p. 3). While an 11 percent reduction in recidivism may seem small, that figure equates to less crime, fewer victims, fewer prosecutions, and fewer tax-payer dollars spent on incarceration (Aos, Miller & Drake, 2006).

In addition to the programs listed above, Aos et al. (2006) identify the following programming strategies as reducing recidivism.

Within prison settings

• Cognitive-behavioral drug treatment;

• Correctional industry programs;

• Drug treatment;

• Vocational education programs;

• General and specific cognitive-behavioral programs;

• Cognitive-behavioral treatment for sex offenders (in prison or in the community)

Within the community settings

• Drug treatment;

• Treatment-oriented, intensive community supervision programs;

• Employment training and job assistance in the community (Aos, Miller & Drake, 2006, p. 3)

Again, it should be noted that even though these programs have been shown to decrease recidivism rates, the reductions may be small. For example, employment training and job assistance within the community has shown a 5% decrease in recidivism. That figure may equate to only a handful of offenders not reoffending, but the impact on society is much greater.

Further Insights

According to Lattimore (2007), offenders as a population face a great deal of challenges that make for a difficult reentry into society. For example, various studies indicate that inmates share the following damaging characteristics.

Little education, few job skills, little job experience likely to lead to good employment, substance and alcohol dependency, and other health problems, including mental health problems. In addition, their family and friends are often involved in crime and substance abuse, and they disproportionately return to neighborhoods with few economic opportunities and few, if any, positive role models. Finally, each must cope with a criminal record that can stand in the way of opportunities following release (Lattimore, 2007, p. 89).

Furthermore, the systems created to support society, have failed most inmates in some way or another. For example,

… many of those who end up incarcerated did poorly in the school systems that provide educational foundations for a successful adulthood. Many offenders have histories of abuse and neglect and may have been referred to, or in the custody of, family and social services. Adult inmates often have histories of juvenile confinement and adult probation that failed to provide the services, programming and support to reform and rehabilitate. And finally, many inmates have received alcohol and drug treatment outside the criminal justice system, but may remain addicted to drugs and alcohol (Lattimore, 2007, p. 89).


Reisig, Bales, Hay, and Xia (2007) note that in the U.S. "recidivism is highest among males, African Americans, and those under the age of 18" (Beck & Shipley, 1989; Langan & Levin, 2002, as cited in Reisig et al., 2007, p. 409). In addition, "African Americans make up nearly half of both the prison population and the offenders reentering society from prison" even though they make up less than 15 percent of the population as a whole (Harrison & Beck 2004, as cited in Reisig et al., 2007, p. 411). Furthermore, of those offenders rearrested within a three year time period of being released from prison, African Americans are 16% more likely to be rearrested than other populations (Langan & Levin, 2002, as cited in Reisig et al., 2007, p. 411).

Reisig et al. (2007) conducted a study to predict the recidivism rates of inmates based on the economic stability of each county in the state of Florida. They based their predictions on the racial inequality (the unequal distribution of economic resources based on race) of various communities where inmates would be released. According to census and economic reports the researchers were able to determine that "reconviction rates for Black males are highest in counties where adverse economic conditions (e.g., income, joblessness, and poverty) disproportionately affect Black families" (Reisig et al, 2007, p. 419).

To be specific, Reisig et al (2008) determined that Saint John's County, Florida has the highest degree of racial inequality in the state. As such, they predicted a 100 % recidivism rate for offenders released into that county. That is, 100% of the African American offenders released into that county will reenter the criminal justice system based on the lack of economic resources within the community (p. 428). With no viable job opportunities, a former offender may view criminal behavior as the only means for supporting himself and/or his family. This pattern was repeated across the state; the counties showing high degrees of racial inequality were predicted to have high rates of recidivism for Black males (p. 419). Conversely, White male recidivism rates were not impacted by racial inequality (Reisig et al., 2007, p. 419).


About one in three women will make a successful return to the community once released from prison (Fortuin, 2007). Reentering society is challenging with few job skills and little education, and as such, recidivism rates for women are high. A program created by the Volunteers of America Northern New England was established to assist women in the transition process from prison to the community. In Maine, the incarceration rate for women doubled from 1994 to 2002, a jump of over 52% (Fortuin, 2007). For those women participating in the Transition, Reunification and Re-entry program, however, recidivism rates have decreased, and women are finding the resources necessary to live successful in society. According to Fortuin (2007), the program includes

… case-management services that attend to housing, employment, education, family reunification and empowerment, birth control, and continuity of care for mental health, physical health and substance abuse … In the early days, transition planning for a female offender began three months prior to her release. It now begins six months prior to release and extends up to six months after release, providing a more comprehensive transition plan and greater support during the critical days immediately following release (Fortuin, 2007, p. 34).

In addition to the services it provides, this program encourages women to believe in their ability to be successful and responsible once in their communities. And, it isolates - from person to person - the services most necessary for each inmate in preparation for her release. For example, where one woman may need mental health services as a priority, another may need basic literacy skills, and another may need family counseling prior to reuniting with her children. Fortuin (2007) notes that this initiative is replicable in most women's correction centers, since much of the assistance is community based and already provided by civic organizations. With the help of many volunteers, this program simply sees to it that prisoner and services are united and that newly released women are mentored closely immediately following their release.

Another initiative created by the Volunteers of America is Women Building Futures. This program teaches construction skills to women by allowing inmates to assist in the building of modular homes for...

In August, the RAND Corporation released a meta-analysis confirming what criminal justice researchers have been reporting for years: Educating people while they're behind bars makes them a lot less likely to return to prison once they get out. Specifically, RAND found that inmates who participated in correctional education programs were 43 percent less likely to become repeat offenders than inmates who didn't.

When it comes to making cities safer, decreasing the odds of former prisoners re-offending by almost half has the potential for a huge impact. But education is also a difficult service to provide behind bars. One of the downsides of having the largest incarcerated population in the world—both per capita and in real numbers—is that the participation rate of prisoners in educational programs has actually declined, according to RAND's study. At the federal prison level, a 2012 GAO report found that the number of people waiting to get into basic prison literacy programs was almost equal to the number of people in those programs. Access to anything beyond the most basic education programs is even more scarce: Between 1995, the year Congress revoked Pell Grant access for prisoners, and 2005, the number of post-secondary prison programs for inmates fell by more than 90 percent.

With so little investment in experimentation, the ideal correctional education program is something of a mystery. That's why the Vera Institute of Justice last year launched its Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education Project. Over the next five years, Pathways is providing funding for prisoners to enroll in either two- and four-year degree programs two years before their release date, and for the four-year programs, continues to fund their education for two years after release. The idea, says Pathways Director Fred Patrick, is that prisoners can re-enter society prepared to work in growth fields like information technology, or continue toward a four-year degree by transferring their credits to participating four-year institutions.

"We grow up in a society that puts a high premium on education from birth," Patrick says. "That's because it's transformative. It turns individuals around in terms of being a good citizen, a good neighbor, and less likely to commit a crime."


Solutions for an Urbanizing World


Scaling the Pathways project, which currently works with 21 prisons and 17 colleges in New Jersey, North Carolina, and Michigan, would be ambitious. It requires not only willing participation by post-secondary institutions, but also input from local businesses to determine what jobs need filling, as well as funding for tuition, prison tutors, Skype access, and campus-based reentry counselors. At a time when Republicans in Washington have expressed interest in cutting Pell Grant funding by $170 billion, it's hard to imagine Congress providing the money necessary to take Vera's program nationwide.   

Which is why Patrick is quick to point out that spending more on prison education means spending less money elsewhere. Not only are criminal justice costs reduced, but "you’re keeping people off public assistance by letting someone come home and make a living wage. You’re keeping people off Medicaid. You’re inspiring these people to care about things that other people care about."

Patrick can even imagine the Pathways project as a way to "restore vibrancy" to high-crime neighborhoods. "In almost every state you can track the neighborhoods that the vast majority of people in prison come from," he says. Allowing offenders to return to those neighborhoods with jobs and an education is "an investment in a safer community."

Top image: An inmate reads a book in a gymnasium where they are housed due to overcrowding at the California Institution for Men state prison in Chino, California. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

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