Recidivism is the relapse of criminal behavior. In this article, we’ll give a definition of the term “recidivism” and discuss recidivism laws, rates, causes, and solutions.

Key Takeaways

  • Recidivism is the tendency to engage in repeat criminal behavior
  • Recidivism also often refers to when a convicted criminal is convicted of another crime after serving a sentence
  • There are multiple laws such as three strike laws and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 attempting to reduce recidivism by giving harsher punishments to repeat offenders
  • The United States has some of the highest rates of recidivism in the world at about 44%
  • Factors contributing to recidivism include a person’s social environment and community and difficulty adjusting back into normal life after prison
  • Possible solutions for recidivism include literacy programs, halfway houses, and electronic monitoring of home confinement

What Is Recidivism?

In the legal system, recidivism is defined as the tendency to engage in repeated or habitual criminal behavior. It often refers to the situation in which a person is convicted of a crime, serves a sentence, and then commits another crime resulting in a new conviction and sentence. High rates of recidivism are used as an indicator that a jurisdiction has poor correctional programs for convicted criminals. 

Recidivism Laws

Both the state and federal legal systems have made efforts to reduce recidivism rates by creating laws. For example, California’s recidivism statute, commonly known as the three strikes law, increases sentencing for every additional crime a recidivist commits. Under this law, a criminal’s sentence is doubled for their second felony and tripled for their third violent crime or serious felony (up to 25 years in prison.) 

This ballot measure, passed with 71% support in 1994, was prompted by the abduction and murder of a 12-year-old girl in Petaluma, California by a killer who was a twice-convicted kidnapper on parole after serving only half of a 16-year sentence for a second kidnapping. 

The federal government and 25 additional states now have laws like the three strikes law imposing up to a life sentence for criminals convicted of a third felony.

Another attempt to reduce recidivism rates was the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Enacted by Congress, this act mandates life imprisonment for the commission of a serious violent felony or a combination of two or more serious felonies or drug offenses. 

Recidivism Rates

The United States has some of the highest recidivism rates in the world. According to the National Institute of Justice, nearly 44% of released criminals return to prison within the first year after their release.

Below is a chart of recidivism rates by state.

State Recidivism rate
Alabama 31% for men

21% for women

Alaska 66.41%
Arizona 40%
Arkansas 58.21%
California 50%
Colorado 50%
Connecticut 34%
Delaware 64.9%
Florida 25%
Georgia 30%
Hawaii 48.9%
Idaho 35%
Illinois 43%
Indiana 33.78%
Iowa 38.8%
Kansas 33.1%
Kentucky 32.2%
Louisiana 34.1%
Maine 30.2%
Maryland 40.5%
Massachusetts 32%
Michigan 28.1%
Minnesota 35-37%
Mississippi 33%
Missouri 43.9%
Montana 38.6% for men

24.4% for women 

Nebraska 30.1%
Nevada 28.63%
New Hampshire 43.1%
New Jersey 29.8%
New Mexico 50%
New York 40%
North Carolina 40%
North Dakota 39.4%
Ohio 31.45%
Oklahoma 20.1%
Oregon 52.9%
Pennsylvania 53.4%
Rhode Island 50%
South Carolina 23.1%
South Dakota 43.1%
Tennessee 47.1%
Texas 21.4%
Utah 50%
Vermont 52.5%
Virginia 23.1%
Washington 32.2%
West Virginia 24.06%
Wisconsin 31.3%

Factors Contributing to Recidivism

There are many factors thought to contribute to recidivism, including:

  • A person’s social environment and community
  • A person’s circumstances before incarceration
  • Events during a person’s incarceration
  • Difficulty adjusting back into normal life

Solutions to Recidivism

Widely recognized as a danger to the public, there are many ideas on how to improve recidivism rates. These include:

  • Literacy programs in penal institutions
  • Electronic monitoring of home confinement
  • Greater use of halfway houses
  • Boot camps for young first-time offenders

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