Recidivism in the Criminal Justice System

Published 17 Feb 2017

Table of content


Prison recidivism is a problem in the United States, resulting in prison overcrowding. As the government struggles to address the conditions in prisons, researchers have begun to look at alternatives to incarceration. These alternatives can result in lowering crime, recidivism and the prison population (Lanagan 2002).

The numbers of people in the United States spending time in prison and the amount of time people are spending is an enormous problem and cost for every state Llanagan 2002). The rate of incarceration has doubled in the last twenty years. Sixty percent of these people are serving time in prison for non-violent offenses. Only Russia has a higher rate of incarceration than the United States. Eventually, the great majority of criminals are released back to society (Messina 2006).

Since it is clear that the likelihood of re-offending is high, and increases over time, preventative programs are being studied and implemented across the United States as well as other countries. The rehabilitative and preventative program work to address the transition n to the community and focus in on particular problems for the individual (Cochran 2007). Many of these program focus on the problems associated with substance abuse and addiction as this issues is rampant among individual in the criminal justice system.

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Programs and services for individuals with mental illness in the criminal justice system are also being developed across the country. In many areas, professional have referred to the prisons and jails throughout the country as de facto mental institution (Cochran 2007). The number of people with a mental illness incarcerated each year is more that seven times the number of people hospitalized (Peters 2005). More than sixty percent of incarcerated individuals are minorities. Another population that is increasing fast is the number of women in the criminal justice system.
There are many complex reasons one can link to the rising rate of arrest and incarceration. These involve society issues such as poverty, unemployment, gang involvement, substance abuse, lack of educational opportunities, etc. As a result of crime, lawmakers have made changes to address the issue including mandatory sentencing, and “three strikes” laws (Roberts 2001). The responses to get tougher on crime have in some ways back fired. Continually arresting and sentencing an individual for drug related offences does not appear to be the answer, given the statistics.

The Data

A study by the US Department of Justice found that over 60% of prisoners released are rearrested within three years. The Department of Justice reviewed the cases of 300,000 individuals released from prison in 1994 and completed a similar review of prisoners released in 1983.More than half (52%) were back in prison within three years for either a violation of their parole or for a new crime. Individual in prison for robbery and burglary had the highest rate of re-offence (over 70%) (Zamble 2002). Individuals in prison for homicide and rape had lower rearrest rates of around 40%, still high enough to raise serious concerns for society. On average, prisoners had accrued fifteen charges prior to their initial prison sentence (Langan 2002).

On average, prisoners remain in prison nearly five years, but served only about one third of their original sentence. The great majority of prisoner, about 70% had more than five prior arrests. Date indicates that six moths following release approximately one third of criminal have re-offended. That number grows to about forty-five percent after two years and to nearly seventy percent in three years (Langan 2002).

Mental Illness

Persons with mental illness represent approximately more than fifteen percent of the prison population, more than 100,000 persons across the United States. This number does not include the even larger number of inmates in local and county jails ( Lovell 2002). More than half of these prisoner released, were later rearrested. Unlike other populations of prisoners, those with mental illness are not generally able to advocate for themselves. There voices are not heard by the community at large. Social workers and mental health professionals have begun to study this issue and develop programs to link individual with appropriate services and prevent the re-offending behavior. (Lovell 200). Additionally, models on the front end that keep mentally ill individuals out of local jails are being developed. For example, The Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) model involves local police working along with mental health professions to quickly identify and divert mentally ill people from the law enforcement system to the mental health system. This model is being used in Memphis Tennessee and has become a national model, replicated in many communities. Early data on this program indicates that arrests are decreasing and referrals to mental health services are increasing. In the long term, keeping mentally ill individuals out of jail, keeps them out of prisons (Cochran 2007).

Substance Abuse

Programs are also being designed to address the population of individuals who are incarcerated and re-incarcerated as the result of serious substance abuse and dependence problems (Hiller 1999). The development of what has become known as a “therapeutic community” within the confines of the prison can be used to begin the assessment and treatment of people with substance abuse problem’s Following the treatment in prison, the referral, to a community based residential program for continued treatment and support further improves the outcomes in the long term. The research concludes that the criminal justice system must develop release plans that include a continuum of services from the prison to the community. Society as a whole is served by these programs as there is less cost and less crime (Hiller 1999).


Women are an invisible group in prisons in the Untied States. Most people don’t think of the large and increasing numbers of incarcerated women, or of their children. It is not the normal image of women in our society. Aside form the high profile cases covered in the media, the problems and circumstance of female prisoners has not been given much attention until recently. The number of women in the prison system has tripled in the last ten years (Zamble 2002). Women are the fastest growing prison population. The reason for this is fairly clear. The crimes committed by these women are generally substance abuse related and with mandatory sentencing, they go to prison (Roberts 2001). The complicated factor in many of these women life is the history of trauma and co-existing mental health problems. Surveys of women in prison have shown numbers as high as eight percent of them with a history of sexual and or physical abuse (Messina 2006). The rate of recidivism for these women is high and a survey of prison wardens in 1995, indicated that at least three quarters of these women would be better served in community based programs. The mandatory sentencing laws that were meant to keep serious and violent criminal locked up, has resulted in an increasing number of non violent, substance abusing women in prison. There crimes are often linked to poverty (Wolf 2006). The recurring themes in the lives of these women are lack of education, unemployment, single mothers and poverty. Approximately 66% of these women have children. Almost two thirds of the women are minorities (Messina 2006).

Developing programs to identify and begin treatment of these women while in prison, or diverting them from prison all together is key. The therapeutic community model has also shown to be effective for women. Programs must have a component for assessing issues of past abuse that may hold the key to the substance abuse and in tern the poor education and employment histories of these women (Wolf 2006).


The Untied States has experienced an explosive increase in the criminal justice system for problems liked to poverty, unemployment, mental illness, substance abuse among other societal factors. Maintaining individuals in prison with the goal of sending a message and preventing future crime has not been successful. It appears from the data and the research that the Unites States will need to examine other alternatives to have an effect on crime, rates of recidivism and the costs associated with the criminal justice system (Zamble 2002). Studies and research has shown that the types of programs needed are similar in nature and design, though may need to be adjusted depending on the particular problems of a group or individual. Rehabilitative programs that begin to assess and treat people in prison and then link them to services in the community is at the present, the best hope of impacting the crime rate and recidivism.


  • Cochran, Major Sam, Fighting Stigma in Law Enforcement. The Message Has to Come From the Heart. Memphis Police Department, 2007.
  • Hiller, Matthew L, Knight, Kevin. Simpson, Dwayne Prison-based substance abuse treatment, residential aftercare and recidivism Addiction 94 (6), 1999.
  • Langan, Patrick and Levine, David .Recidivism of Prisoners, Office of Justice Brorams Special Report, June 2002.
  • Lovell, David and Gagliardi, Gregg Recidivism and Use of Services Among Persons with Mental Illness After Release From Prison, Psychiatric Services, October 2002.
  • Messina, Nena, Burdon, William, Prendergastn, Michael, Predictors of prison-based treatment outcomes: a comparison of men and women participants. American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, Feb, 2006.
  • Peters RH, Wexler HK. Substance abuse treatment for adults in the criminal justice system. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA); 2005 Sep 12. 332 p. (Treatment improvement protocol (TIP); no. 44
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