What is Recidivism?

Recidivism is defined as doing something bad or illegal again after having been punished or after having stopped a certain behavior. For example, a petty thief who is released from jail promptly steals something else the first day. It is a major problem in the United States. According to the Pew Center on the States, more than four in 10 criminals who are released from incarceration re-offend. The second kind of recidivism usually applies to addicts who get clean by any means necessary and then either beginning their chosen behavior pattern or taking their drug of choice again for whatever reason. An example would be a problem gambler who quits and then buys a lottery ticket.

Causes of Recidivism

The issue is complex, but the chief reason recidivism is high in the United States is that a chunk of the prison system wants it to be. Part of the prison system in the United States is a for-profit system, and there will be higher profits if more people are incarcerated. According to the group In the Public Interest, 716 of every 100,000 people are incarcerated, which is the highest in the world by a large margin.

Other than simply wanting to make more money off of the prisoners they incarcerate, owners of private prisons also increase recidivism by providing fewer services, allowing more violence during incarceration, and purposely imprisoning people far away from their homes. All of these tactics increase the chances of offenders "doing it again," which keeps prison bunks, and the wallets of the prison owners, full.

Inmates in private prisons, as stated, usually have access to fewer services and support programs than their counterparts in public prisons. A partial list of these includes:

  • Psychiatric help
  • Job training
  • Education
  • Affordable communication with families

Withholding any or all of these increases recidivism. When it comes to addiction, the same ideas hold true. Addicts, many of whom are the very prisoners who are being abused, must also be supported over the long haul so that they don't relapse.

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Punishment or Rehabilitation?

The debate regarding these two subjects is likely never to be settled completely. According to the American Psychological Association, the "tough on crime" mantra stipulates that the primary function of prison should be punishment. One in five prisoners is also mentally ill, and with the move away from state-provided mental health care that started in the 1980s under Reagan, the prison system has also become the de facto mental-health system too.

As the clinical psychiatrist James Gilligan points out, rehabilitation works while punishment doesn't. The idea of "teaching prisoners a lesson" only teaches them to inflict pain because that is what they receive. Gilligan argues that the purpose of prison should be to restrain the prisoners until they can re-integrate into society instead of punishing them in perpetuity. Of course, the most violent and dangerous prisoners might never get out, but for the less-violent, coping skills and the ability to control oneself are key to their success in society after being released.


If a society wishes to reduce recidivism, it behooves that society to take the necessary steps to accomplish such a goal. The evidence indicates that the path to that goal includes the education, training, and support of prisoners and the elimination of the punitive, for-profit system.