Repeat Offenders and Recidivism

Recidivist laws carry harsh consequences. Learn what a repeat offense can mean in the criminal system.

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated March 06, 2024

Criminal laws treat repeat offenders more harshly than first-time offenders. These recidivist laws dole out lengthier sentences, mandatory minimums, and other punitive measures. Learn about repeat offender and recidivist laws and statistics.

What Does Recidivism Mean?

Recidivism refers to repeat criminal behavior by an offender. You might hear the term "recidivist" used to describe a repeat offender.

Recidivism can be measured in different ways. When it comes to sentencing laws, recidivism will often be based on a person's repeat convictions. But, when measuring all re-offense rates, most studies will count not only repeat convictions but also rearrests and re-incarceration.

Here's one way to describe it: A person recidivates any time, after committing a crime, they are released back into the community and subsequently arrested or returned to jail or prison for a new conviction or a probation or parole violation.

What Leads to Recidivism?

The United States has one of the highest recidivism (return to criminal behavior) rates in the world. The blame for the United States' high rates of recidivism is a very divisive issue and, depending on one's views, can be placed on society, government, laws, or the individual.

Factors Relating to Recidivism and Repeat Offending

People view the causes of recidivism differently. Some factors blamed for revolving prison doors include bad criminal justice policies (such as high incarceration rates), ineffective sanctions (too harsh or too soft), drug addiction and other vices, incorrigibility, poverty, housing insecurity, unemployment, criminal record barriers, and lack of assistance for people returning to the community. But, no matter who or what is to blame, U.S. recidivism rates remain high.

Recidivism Statistics: The Number of Repeat Offenders

A study of federal offenders found that almost half were rearrested after eight years, almost one-third were reconvicted, and one-quarter were reincarcerated. For state prisoners, the numbers are even higher. A government survey found that 70% were rearrested within five years and nearly half returned to prison for a new conviction or a parole or probation violation.

What Are Recidivist Sentencing Laws?

As noted above, criminal laws treat repeat offenders more harshly than first-time offenders. An offender who reenters the criminal justice system with a prior conviction on record can face:

Enhanced penalties for repeat convictions. Many states' laws enhance penalties for second and subsequent offenses. These repeat offenses might be for a same or similar offense or for a subsequent misdemeanor or felony. For instance, a misdemeanor domestic assault conviction could carry felony penalties if it's the offender's third one in 10 years. Or a state might increase the felony classification for a second violent felony conviction (for instance, from a class C to a class B felony).

Increased sentences for repeat convictions. States and federal laws set maximum penalties for crimes. Generally, a judge can hand down any sentence up to that maximum with the parameters of the law. Most parameters require a judge to consider a defendant's criminal history. The lengthier a person's criminal history is, the longer their sentence will generally be. So, if a first-time and repeat offender commit the same crime, the repeat offender will typically get a longer sentence based on their criminal history.

Mandatory minimums. Certain repeat crimes carry mandatory minimum sentences that judges are not supposed to ignore. For instance, a state law might require an offender to serve a minimum 10-year prison sentence for a third violent felony conviction. Mandatory minimum laws are harshly criticized because they don't allow a judge to examine the circumstances of the case and the individual before them.

Three strikes or habitual offender laws. Many states enacted "three strikes" laws back in the ‘90s. These laws often imposed harsh sentences for a third felony—sometimes doubling or tripling a sentence or imposing a life sentence. While many states have reduced the harshest of these penalties, three strikes (sometimes called habitual or career offender) laws still exist.

Restrictions on sentencing alternatives. Having prior convictions may eliminate opportunities for sentencing alternatives to jail or prison. For instance, a first-time offender might qualify for diversion (and no conviction if successful) or probation (supervision in the community). But the law might prohibit these options for a repeat offender, meaning they will likely spend time behind bars.

The recent policy trend has been to dial back on these punitive policies to reduce the impact of recidivist sentencing laws. For instance, many states have reduced drug possession charges from felonies to misdemeanors, eliminated harsh three strikes laws, and eased up on mandatory minimums.

Repeat Offender and Recidivist Programs

Breaking the cycle of crime is difficult. On top of tougher sentences, a person with a criminal record faces other obstacles upon reentering the community. A felony record might prevent a person from receiving public assistance, obtaining a professional license, or finding housing. Prospective employers who see a criminal record, even a misdemeanor, might think twice about hiring that person. Convictions also tend to come with fines, fees, and other costs the person must pay or face collection agents and garnishment of wages.

In recent years, some state lawmakers have focused on minimizing the impact of a criminal record or invested in programming for offenders. For instance, many states have made it easier to clear one's criminal history records through expungement and sealing laws. Some have strengthened laws prohibiting employers or licensing agencies from discriminating against people convicted of minor or old offenses. Other initiatives include providing or investing in:

  • diversion programs for young adult offenders
  • college and GED classes in prisons
  • prison programming designed to give offenders job, life, and parenting skills
  • housing and employment assistance for offenders reentering the community, and
  • addiction and mental health treatment in prison and upon release.

States are also focusing on preventing criminality by investing in early interventions, such as nurse visits in infancy, preschool programs, parent education, and after-school programs. Additional preventive efforts include policies to reduce the school-to-prison pipeline and make the juvenile justice system more effective.

Getting Legal Help

Anytime you face criminal charges, speak to a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Having a conviction on your record, even for a misdemeanor, can have serious immediate and future consequences. It's important to discuss the short-term and long-term effects of a conviction with your lawyer before agreeing to a plea deal or making other decisions.

Talk to a Defense attorney
We've helped 95 clients find attorneys today.
There was a problem with the submission. Please refresh the page and try again
Full Name is required
Email is required
Please enter a valid Email
Phone Number is required
Please enter a valid Phone Number
Zip Code is required
Please add a valid Zip Code
Please enter a valid Case Description
Description is required

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you