Recidivism Problems in the US Criminal Justice System

By Patrick Gleeson, Ph. D., Registered Investment Adv ; Updated June 14, 2017
Hands on bars of jail cell

Rates of both incarceration and recidivism – the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend – in the U.S. Criminal Justice System remain high. Although authorities disagree on the recidivism rate, programs that reduce recidivism rates are well-understood. The problem is that a highly politicized electorate doesn't agree on how to implement them, or even if they should be implemented at all.

How Much Recidivism Is There?

No one doubts that the ideal amount of recidivism in the U.S. Criminal Justice system would be none – prisoners serve their time and once released never return. Many critics point to high recidivism rates in the current system as an indication that it's broken. But one of the problems facing lawmakers, commissions and the general public when considering ways of improving the system to lower the recidivism rate is that there is disagreement about what that rate really is.

The U.S. Bureau of Justice concludes from a study of about 400,000 state prisoners released in 2005 that by 2010 more than half were back in prison again. However, a 2014 academic study published in "Crime and Delinquency" analyzes similar data and concludes that "following incarceration, most released offenders never return to prison." Only 11 percent, the authors conclude, actually return to prison multiple times. The Department of Justice (DOJ) statistical model, they maintain, is faulty and allows a very small number of repeat offenders with multiple convictions to skew the DOJ's results.

Clearly, a better understanding leading to eventual agreement over the recidivism rate is a high priority for those attempting to improve it. If the real rate is as high the Bureau of Justice study concludes, then practices and policies that help most prisoners to stay out of prison are needed. But if in reality the statistics are skewed by a minority of prisoners who return multiple times, then working to improve recidivism rates among this repeat-offending minority becomes a higher priority.

Is the Real Problem Mass Incarceration?

During Barack Obama's presidency, he called particular attention to the way in which mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses were filling U.S. prisons with non-violent offenders who were disproportionately African-American. Law professor Michelle Alexander, in her book-length analysis, "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness," calls our criminal justice system "a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow."

According to analyses of this kind, the real problem underlying recidivism isn't only that many prisoners return to prison, some of them many times, but that there are so many Americans imprisoned in the first place. Having a high recidivism rate among a small prison population is still a problem, but it is a far greater problem if the prison population is swelling, so that even though the recidivism rate remains relatively constant, increasing numbers Americans have felony records and find themselves returning to prison.

Although almost anything related to imprisonment in the U.S. is highly politicized, it is generally agreed by both liberals and conservatives that although the U.S. population comprises about 5 percent of the world population, the U.S. houses 25 percent of the world's prisoners, an unacceptably high number. One very good way of reducing the number of prisoners who return to prison is reducing the number of those put in prison in the first place.

Rehabilitation or Punishment?

What is the primary purpose of a prison? Is it to provide rehabilitation programs in a controlled setting? Or is it to punish evil-doers and to provide an example for others who might be tempted to break the law unless the consequences are both apparent and severe?

Significantly, during the the prison population explosion that occurred in the latter years of the 20th century, the funds available for rehabilitation programs actually decreased. This is particularly unfortunate because there is overwhelming statistical evidence, provided by the Council of State Governments Justice Center among many other organizations, that rehabilitation programs work. Not only do they reduce recidivism; they cost less than the cost of housing repeat offenders. Plainly put, rehabilitation programs save taxpayer money. Despite this, many public officials remain reluctant to invest in rehabilitation programs because many voters object to spending money "coddling" prisoners.

Reintegration Versus Shunning

The same ambivalence about providing anything that looks like help to imprisoned offenders continues after their release and with similar results. From 1985 to 1995 – the same period when the U.S. prison population soared – legislatures passed laws making life more difficult for ex-prisoners. Among them are current laws making them ineligible for welfare benefits and public housing.

Felons, even if convicted of non-violent drug offenses, are generally barred from working as teachers, security guards, home health-care attendants, nurses and in many other fields. Each of these laws that further restrict employment opportunities for prisoners also drive them to illegal ways of making money and work to ensure that a return to prison becomes more likely.

The Way Forward

If we had a better understanding of who returns to prison and why, we could devise the best programs to lower recidivism. The absence of agreed-upon recidivism rates makes rehabilitating prisoners somewhat more difficult. Nonetheless, programs that reduce recidivism are well-understood. A 2017 EfficentGov article outlines five kinds of programs proven to reduce recidivism rates. They all involve education, community involvement and helpful supervision of released convicts to increase their chances of employment.

But how the public feels about rehabilitation versus punishment and how it weighs the relative importance of protecting against felons versus reintegrating them in society are larger issues that remain unresolved. Until voters agree to fund programs that work and to do away with punishments, such as mandatory minimum sentences, that haven't, high U.S. recidivism rates will likely continue.

About the Author

Patrick Gleeson received a doctorate in 18th century English literature at the University of Washington. He served as a professor of English at the University of Victoria and was head of freshman English at San Francisco State University. Gleeson is the director of technical publications for McClarie Group and manages an investment fund. He is a Registered Investment Advisor.