People who commit subsequent crimes are often punished more harshly than first offenders.
According to a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, approximately four out of ten people released from prison are returned to prison within three years. In some states, the number of repeat offenders, also called recidivists, is even higher. Repeat offenders can pose dangers to people and property, and state governments spend millions of dollars incarcerating, releasing, and re-incarcerating repeat offenders. Are our laws and policies up to the challenge of preventing recidivism?
Recidivist Sentencing Laws
Repeat offenders may be returned to prison for new crimes, or for technical violations of parole, such as failing a drug test, or missing a meeting with a parole officer. Although state sentencing laws differ, oftentimes, a person who has a prior conviction will be given a harsher sentence than a person who has a clean record, even if the two people are convicted of the same crime. In some states that set sentencing ranges, judges are required to impose longer sentences for people who have criminal records. For example, in Kansas, judges must consider the severity of the crime, as well as the defendant’s prior record, during sentencing. Laws imposing longer sentences on repeat offenders persist despite mixed evidence that harsh sentences and incarceration reduce the likelihood of reoffending or make communities safer.
Additionally, many criminal sentencing schemes impose harsher sentences for people who have previously been convicted of the same, or similar, crimes. For example, in many states, people convicted of domestic violence or driving under the influence (DUI) are punished more severely if the defendant has a related prior conviction. So, a first offense might be a misdemeanor, punishable by jail time or even probation, but a second offense might require a longer jail sentence or time in prison. Again, there is mixed evidence on whether the hasher sentences deter repeat offenses.
Finally, many states have habitual offender laws, like California’s Three Strikes law, that impose lengthy prison terms (up to 25 years to life) on any defendant convicted of a third felony. In 2012, California voters changed the state’s habitual offender law so that it applied only to serious and violent criminals, rather than anyone with three felony convictions. The trend appears to be moving towards limiting the application of habitual offender laws to dangerous criminals, but many other offenders can still get swept up in these laws today, at great public cost.
The Cycle of Recidivism
Simply put, once a person has been convicted of a crime, it can be difficult to stay away from criminal activity after being released from prison. In all states, a criminal conviction imposes a variety of collateral consequences, even after a person is released from prison. For example, in some states, convicts are banned from public housing. In other states, people with criminal records cannot receive public assistance. The Internet has made it easy and cheap to determine if a person has a criminal record, and employers often discriminate against offenders, even where law prohibits such discrimination. Depending on the criminal conviction, an offender may not be able to live in the family home (if, for example, there are foster children who live there) or volunteer; and it can be difficult to secure rental housing. In short, collateral consequences can make it very difficult for a person with a criminal record to obtain housing or job opportunities or establish strong ties to the community, even though these are the very things most likely to help reintegrate an offender back into society.
We know what works. A study by the Pew Center shows that rehabilitation programs, including education, job training, mental health and substance abuse treatment, and therapy, are effective at reducing recidivism. Another study prepared for the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice shows that interventions early on, like nurse visits in infancy, preschool programs, parent education, and afterschool programs prevent initial criminality. In recent years, some state legislatures have made it easier for people convicted of minor offenses to clear their criminal records, strengthened laws prohibiting employment discrimination against ex-offenders, or pledged state dollars to programs that assist offenders as they re-enter society with job training, housing assistance, and life skills.
However, given the status of most state budgets, many governments simply do not have adequate resources to invest in such programs. Aside from money, some politicians would rather appear "tough on crime" than spend money on rehabilitation programs to prevent crime. Of course, even if we had the resources and political will to invest heavily in all of these programs, some people will still turn to a life of crime. But directing public funds towards programs that focus on preventing crime (including recidivism) rather than merely responding to it after the fact could almost certainly reduce our incarceration rates, make our communities safer, and even save money.
Obtaining Legal Assistance
Whenever you are facing criminal charges, you need to talk to a local criminal defense attorney. The services of an experienced lawyer are even more important if you already have a criminal record. Recidivists are often sentenced to more severe punishment, including longer jail or prison terms. An attorney can explain the law in your state and help you obtain the best possible outcome in your case.