Why do felons, once they are released from prison, continue to commit crimes, knowing the potential consequences for doing so?
As humans we are all prone to repeat our past behavior.
Typically we do so when there is something for us to gain, or we wouldn’t do it.
But why run the risk of being incarcerated again?
Yet statistics show that as many as 69% of those released from prison will return there within three years of their release.
It wouldn’t seem to make sense, but there are many reasons for them to offend again and for two thirds to be re-incarcerated.
That is why when it comes to matters of the criminal justice system, recidivism is a primary concern.
In this blog post, we will focus on a few of these factors.
Recidivism Definition: What Is Recidivism?
Recidivism is a fundamental concept in the criminal justice system that helps us better understand the criminal justice system’s core functions: incapacitation, deterrence, and rehabilitation.
Recidivism refers to the tendency of a person previously convicted to relapse into their previous mode of behavior.
This results in them engaging in criminal acts that will get them rearrested, leading to reconviction and incarceration within three years following their prison release.
Released offenders should be getting their lives together, but instead, they recidivate.
Why Do Criminals Repeatedly Offend?
Several different factors may contribute to recidivism.
The most common are listed below:
Frustration With Not Being Able to Find a Job
Once released from prison, one of the biggest hurdles felons face is finding a job.
They are expected to do so as part of their probation and re-entry into society.
As felons, they have probably not had a stable job history.
This is in itself one reason felons turn to crime in the first place.
They may not have strong job skills due to a lack of education or no vocational training.
They may lack the interview skills to be hired for a position.
Also, there may be a lack of motivation to find and keep jobs.
Imagine returning from incarceration and struggling to find a job for any of these reasons.
As if that is not enough, it can be difficult to find an employer who is willing to hire an ex-offender.
Many companies will not (though we have a list of companies that do).
It doesn’t take many rejections from potential employers to discourage felons to the point that they give up on a job search.
But there is the constant pressure to make a living and provide for their family.
If nothing else works out they may turn again to crime to make money.
Impulsive, Self-defeating Behavior
It is not uncommon for felons to have a long history of impulsive, self-defeating behavior long before committing a crime.
Often when growing up those who later turn to crime get into trouble at home and in school.
They tend to have a lot of acting out, behavior problems that constantly brings them to the attention of parents, teachers, principals, and later legal authorities.
Among the factors here is that felons often have weak social attachments and move from one shallow involvement with people to another.
Their impulsivity keeps them from finding satisfaction with traditional relationships, leading to feelings of rejection, which is interpreted as there being something wrong with them.
The impulsive acting out becomes more exaggerated and inappropriate and eventually illegal.
After that, it isn’t long before they land in jail or prison.
Once released, they are still impulsive people who don’t quite fit in.
Prison time does little to change this, and often times can actually make the behaviors worse.
More Exposure to Crime
It is true that those who engage in crime are more likely to have grown up in neighborhoods that have a high crime rate along with poverty.
Those are exactly the types of areas where future felons are exposed to crime.
They see their buddies and even close family members commit crimes and constantly remain on the edge of the law.
Especially when family members themselves are felons, the chances of becoming a felon greatly increases.
Once felons are released from prison, where do they go?
Typically they return to the exact same neighborhood and family they came from.
They are once again exposed to a life of crime as those close to them may still be involved in a criminal lifestyle.
The continue to lie, cheat, and steal because that is the neighborhood they are from and that is the norm for them.
It isn’t that they WANT to be these types of people, it’s that they are influenced by their surrounding community.
So they are more prone to commit future crimes because of those influences and a lack of opportunity to get away from that pressure.
This sets them up to once again commit more crimes, placing them at high risk for returning to prison.
Costs of Recidivism
Recidivism comes at a great cost to the United States Criminal Justice System.
Every year, the United States spends almost 300 billion dollars on police communities and an average of 2.2 million people are incarcerated.
If you add up the cost of the damage to families of those incarcerated, adverse health effects, and potential lost earnings, incarceration costs the criminal justice system about 1.2 trillion dollars per year.
Not to mention that incarceration perpetuates the cycle of recidivism and costs the quality of people’s lives.
The more people are incarcerated, the more likely their children are to become addicts or be stunted emotionally and mentally and the more likely they are to become criminals, so on and so forth. It is a vicious cycle.
The history of recidivism in the United States Criminal Justice system can be traced way back to mandatory minimums and the 1984 Sentencing Reform Act.
Before the 1980s, judges used federal sentencing guidelines to consider the merits of a case.
However, since 1984, judges have not been allowed to use the merits of cases to sentence guilty people.
The introduction of mandatory minimums meant sentences were no longer up to interpretation.
Before 1984, offenders who did not have a history of criminal activity were more often than not let off or received more minor sentences.
The 1984 Sentencing Reform Act made it mandatory for judges to hand down a sentence minimum.
Though Congress viewed this as harsh at the time, the idea behind mandatory minimums was to deter people from committing crimes or engaging in criminal behavior.
The criminal justice system also began to extend sentences, even for those who were rehabilitated.
Criminals could no longer qualify for parole and leave earlier for good behavior, meaning rehabilitated people stayed locked up even when it was no longer necessary.
Ways to Stop Repeat Offenders
Contrary to the idea behind the 1984 Sentencing Reform Act, research suggests that the best way to stop recidivism is to stop people from going to prison in the first place.
However, given that the United States Criminal Justice System is based on a model that tries to prevent crime after the fact, instead of before it occurs, we usually employ one of four sanctions to reduce recidivism: incapacitation, deterrence, rehabilitation, and re-entry programs.
Incapacitation is a sanction that removes offenders from the community to attempt to prevent people from committing crimes.
Incapacitation is the first step in preventative measures used to stop repeat offenders.
Examples may include, but are not limited to, probation, parole, or using ankle bracelets to track individuals.
Incapacitation restricts people’s individual freedoms they normally have in society.
People are not restrained or locked up with incapacitation and it cannot rectify crimes that have already been committed.
However, incapacitation is the first of the four goals of imprisonment.
Deterrence denotes whether a completed or imposed sanction stops people from committing a certain crime.
Deterrence is the second step in preventative measures used to stop repeat offenders.
It is based on the idea that criminals will be less likely to become repeat offenders if they are instilled with doubt and fear of consequences.
For example, the presence of police officers around criminals may be a form of deterrence.
However, recidivism studies show that deterrence may not be the best preventative tactic to stop criminals from becoming repeat offenders because its effectiveness is based on individual circumstances, not the general population.
Furthermore, research shows that consequences, such as the potential threat of the death penalty, does not deter people from being repeat offenders.
Rehabilitation refers to the programs designed to help previously convicted criminals address their deficits or needs and restore them to “normal life.”
Rehabilitation is the third step in preventative measures used to stop recidivism.
Most programs are designed to help criminals learn conventional behaviors through modeling and observation and use positive reinforcement to help reduce criminal behaviors.
Research shows that participation in adult rehabilitation programs is linked to a significant reduction in recidivism.
However, some rehabilitation programs and treatment services have been more successful at reducing recidivism than others.
The most successful rehabilitation programs were those that used drug court, group work, counseling, and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
Other rehabilitation programs such as restorative interventions, individual case management, academic programs, work-related programs, supportive residential programs, and intensive supervision such as parole caseloads or reduced probation have not shown any significant signs of reducing recidivism.
Re-entry Programs and Post Release
Re-entry programs help reduce the chance of recidivism by giving former offenders the chance to support themselves through productive, legitimate work and to become functioning, contributing members of society.
Re-entry programs are the fourth step in preventative measures used to reduce recidivism rates.
Research shows that for criminals to succeed with the re-entry process, it must begin while they are still incarcerated.
Facility programs and correctional staff should help incarcerated individuals make positive community relationships and gain a pro-social worldview.
Staff should also help those who are incarcerated work through their mental health concerns and any substance abuse issues.
This is because these are harder to work through once they are out of prison, and may contribute to their chances of returning to prison.
Re-entry programs should also help those who are incarcerated earn an education and develop the skills they will need to survive outside of prison, as well as help them find a place to live and a place to work.
Successful re-entry programs use community resources and other services to help their programs grow, as well as help those who are imprisoned to succeed after their release.
How to Help Ex-offenders Turn Away From Crime
Leading an honest life requires major changes in their lives.
Staying away from crime and living a productive, honest life free from crime is not easy.
As supporters and significant others, it is important to be there to encourage them.
They probably never had a stable job or personal history.
They will need assistance from those who care about them to learn new job and coping skills.
Reaching out for help from organizations in place to help those leaving prison will be an essential step in their recovery.
One of the best places to start is by downloading our FREE guide that helps felons get employed again.
Simply print the guide off and gift it to them, or just email it to them to take a look at.
If you can help a felon get a job, it’ll keep them busy and out of trouble.
Extend that helping hand to begin making a difference as ex-offenders create a new identity as productive members of society.
Overall, recidivism is a self-perpetuating cycle.
The current criminal justice system is not designed to help criminals, and yet people still wonder why they never get out of the system.
It is a vicious cycle that makes it hard for criminals to turn their lives around.
Only by understanding the current system can we work towards changing it and changing the future lives of those who have been imprisoned.
Criminals do not have to become repeat offenders if we help put the proper measures in place, but criminals cannot always make the right changes for themselves.
We have to help those in our community when they are struggling to make the country a better place for us all.
So what do you think about this blog post about why felons become repeat offenders?
Do you know of other reasons?
Please tell us in the comments below.