Recidivism: Definition, Causes & Examples

Key Takeaways

  • Recidivism refers to the relapse of an offender into criminal behavior. Definitions vary in the time window they measure as recidivistic and whether imprisonment, conviction, or simple arrest counts as recidivism.
  • According to some studies from the 1980s onward, the majority of released inmates in the United States are arrested in the years following imprisonment. Numbers are similarly high in other countries.
  • Researchers have attributed recidivism to a plethora of factors ranging from criminal peers to social stigmatization and inadequate skills necessary for employment. Extenuating factors, such as drug abuse, may further stigmatize ex-prisoners, pulling them further from reintegration into society and thus facilitating further crimes.
  • Recidivism studies have been critiqued for their inconsistent methodology and correspondingly inconsistent findings. Ultimately, the lack of a precise definition of recidivism has made it difficult to evaluate the relative effectiveness of rehabilitation programs. Some of these methodological errors, however — such as a lack of a control treatment group in rehabilitation programs — are ethically based.
  • Recidivism can work cyclically by creating further strain on prison systems, and ultimately reducing the resources for the rehabilitation of those within it. Researchers have suggested the introduction of programs focussing on psychological well-being, education, and vocational skills, as well as lessening harsh reconviction laws, as ways of reducing recidivism and its subsequent toll on criminal justice systems.


Recidivism refers to an offender’s relapse into criminal behavior. There is no one definition of recidivism; however, all of the definitions that do exist share three traits (Zgoba and Salerno, 2017).

Firstly, recidivism needs to have a starting event, such as a release from criminal custody or the completion of a rehabilitation program.

Secondly, there needs to be some failure after this event, such as a subsequent arrest or a subsequent arrest for a violent crime.

Thirdly, there needs to be a recidivism window, or a follow-up period under which an offender’s further window can be considered to be recidivism.

In every case, recidivism ultimately refers to a person’s relapse into criminal behavior, usually after receiving sanctions or undergoing intervention for a previous crime (Zgoba and Salerno, 2017).

Governments measure recidivism by the proportion of criminal acts that result in rearrest, reconviction, or return to prison with or without a new sentence during the three-year period following an offender’s release.

Rates of Recidivism

United States

The Bureau of Justice Statistics conducted recidivism studies examining those released from prisons in 1983 and 1994 (Beck & Shipley, 1989; Langan & Levin, 2002).

According to these studies, nearly 63% of offenders released from prison in 1983 were rearrested within three years, 47% were convicted of a new crime, and 41% returned to prison.

These recidivism rates were highest in the first year, with one in four released prisoners being rearrested in the first six months and two in five within the first year after their release.

26% of these prisons had been charged with at least 20 offensives after their release and 5% with 45 or more offensives.

Rates of recidivism increased by 1994, when 68% of released prisoners had been rearrested within three years, 47% were convicted of a new crime, and 25% were recommitted to prison with a new sentence.

By three years after release, this number rose to 52% (Langan & Levin, 2002).

United Kingdom

The reoffending rate (recidivism) of adult offenders within a year of being released from custody from April 2013 to March 2014 was 45.8%.

Adults who served sentences of less than 12 months re-offended at a rate of 59.8%, compared to 33.9% for those who served sentences of 12 months or more.

For the same period, the reoffending rate for juveniles was 67.1%. Over longer periods, the recidivism rate is around 57%.

This is the highest reoffending rate in Europe.


Recidivism has many potential causes (Zgoba and Salerno, 2017):

  • social interactions during incarceration,
  • lack of employment and economic opportunity,
  • depression,
  • lack of reintegration into society,
  • an unchanging lifestyle and social circle upon release,
  • and the underlying problems causing crime not being treated during incarceration.

Otu (2015), in examining the Nigerian prison system, notes that recidivism is caused by a multiplicity of factors.

One of the most noticeable was the societal reaction to imprisonment. As civilians take on discriminatory attitudes toward released and non-released prisons, it becomes difficult for the convicted to reintegrate into society on virtue of labeling and stigmatization.

Why Doesn’t Prison Work?

  • Prison does not address the psychological problems that caused prisoners to commit crimes in the first place e.g. poor moral development and attribution biases or mental health issues.
  • People are released in the same social environment that they came from with social deprivation and unemployment.
  • The stigma attached to having been imprisoned makes it difficult to reintegrate in society e.g. finding a job. Furthermore, they associate with the same people ( differential association theory ).
  • For some people, prison is preferable to the life they left behind, they have companionship, food and a warm shelter.

Other scholars, such as Giddens (2006) and Obioha (1995) have argued that the confining together of prisoners who had committed vastly different crimes, as well as those with different backgrounds, behaviors, and personality traits leads to the development of criminal subcultures within the prison.

In this view, prisons become a “school” of crime and a breeding ground for criminal socialization.

Tenibiaje (2013), meanwhile, took a broader approach to the causes of recidivism, claiming that factors predicting recidivism fall into situational, personal, interpersonal, familial, structural, cultural, and economic categories.

Gendreau, Little, and Goggin (1996), in their meta-analysis, implicated static risk factors as being responsible for recidivism. These risk factors accounted for gender, age of first conviction, having a parent with a criminal record, present age, and the type of offenses committed.

Further, Gendreau, Little, and Goggin argued that so-called dynamic risk factors are the strongest predictors of recidivism. These dynamic factors account for “criminogenic needs,” and include criminal peers, criminal history or history of antisocial behavior, social achievement, and family structure.

Concurring, Brown (2002) concluded that criminal companions, antisocial attitudes and current employment and educational problems were all strong predictors of recidivism.

Other studies of recidivism’s causes have maintained that poor engagement in non-criminal pursuits — such as employment and education — are risk factors for criminal recidivism (Skeem & Peterson et al., 2010).

A number of researchers have conducted recidivism studies as a means of determining if certain treatment programs are effective in reducing recidivism.

Peer group influence, according to these studies, is one powerful predictor of recidivism, albeit one more prevalent in youth offenders than older adults.

Beesley and McGuire (2009) posited that group influence works by facilitating direct behavioral learning through modeling and imitation. Additionally, some offenses, especially among adolescents and young adults, can be committed in a group setting.

The dispersed responsibility associated with peer groups, as well as peer pressure, may encourage greater experimentation than one would carry out alone.

These peer generation effects can apply to family as well as friends — with numerous studies suggesting that spending time with friends and family who engage in criminal behavior is a strong risk factor for offending and reoffending (Murray and Farrington, 2010).

Another risk factor for recidivism is substance-abuse. Adolescents who use drugs are more likely than non-abusers to engage in violent acts (Dawkins, 1997), and drug use also correlates highly with family and marital problems.

In the absence of familial care, adolescents and young adults turn to drugs as a means of way of coping with discrimination and stigmatization.

However, this adds further difficulty to post-prison rehabilitation, integration, and adaption (Leschied, Chiodo, Nowicki, & Rodger, 2008).


Pew Surveys on Recidivism

A number of surveys have been conducted on recidivism over the past few years.

The 2011 Pew-ASCA survey found that 45.4% of offenders released from prison in 1999 were re-incarcerated within three years, and this number reduced by just 2.1% five years later.

Rates of recidivism often vary based on the absence or presence of heavy penalties for re offenders — such as California’s three strikes sentencing law (Greenwood, Rydell, Abrahamse, Caulkins, Chiesa, Model, & Klein; 1994).

Nonetheless, the recidivism rate in large US states such as California has dropped significantly, leading to a downward trend in the country’s recidivism rate overall.

When California is excluded from these surveys, however, the general national recidivism rate appears to remain stable (Zgoba & Salerno, 2017).


Smith et al. (2002) carried out a meta-analysis of over 100 research studies looking at the relationship between reoffending, length of sentence and the use of prison vs. noncustodial sentences.

They found that the recidivism rate following imprisonment was no lower than for non-custodial sentencing and that longer prison terms did not lower the risk of reoffending.

The lowest rate of recidivism in Europe is in Norway. The prison system is very different, much more open with a much greater emphasis on rehabilitation and skill acquisition than in the UK.

Recidivism in the Nigerian Prison System

Otu (2015) conducted an analysis of the factors leading to recidivism in the Nigerian Prison system, as well as possible ways to combat this recidivism in often low-resource settings.

The Nigerian prison system, Otu states, lacks resources for the procurement and establishment of state-of-the-art correctional programs such as vocational training and a formal education system.

Indeed, the facilities that do exist for doing so, are often in poor condition or use technology that is obsolete for the modern workforce.

As a result, few inmates receive formal rehabilitation when released, and often lack the vocational skills and acceptable academic qualifications necessary to become employed in the outside world.

This results in unstable employment and low earnings, poor education and skills acquisition programs, high rates of deviance in the neighborhoods where released convicts live, and social stigmatization by mainstream society.

Recidivism has had a large toll on Nigeria’s local, state, and federal governments. One immediate cost is to Nigerian taxpayers, particularly as policies increase prison populations, leading to higher budgetary demands (Chukwumerije, 2012).

Otu (2015), following McKean and Ransford (2004), suggests three major elements of programs that can successfully reduce recidivism: treatment for substance abuse or mental illness, education, and meaningful employment.

These remove barriers to employment and integration, give inmates the skills necessary to obtain jobs in the outside world, and provide released inmates an income and support reintegration by increasing stability and self-confidence.


To reduce recidivism (i.e., re-offending), punishment needs to fit the individual as well as the crime and more research is needed into reducing the negative psychological effects of imprisonment.

The aim should be for offenders to leave prison fully reformed and ready to take on the role of productive and law-abiding citizens.

Alternatives to imprisonment – Given that we know prison doesn’t work we need alternatives. Some alternatives include probation and restorative justice.

However, the government is reluctant to invest in prisoners, due to economic restraints and public opinion. But, this is a short-sighted approach, in order to cut crime and recidivism rates investment is needed (Economic implication).

From a behaviorist viewpoint, prison could work but it does not because it does not follow the principles of operant conditioning.

For learning to take place the punishment must be probable (i.e. it must always or nearly always follow the behavior), prompt (i.e. must follow the behavior with very shortly) and very unpleasant.

However, many offenders are not caught (or not every time they commit a crime), the punishment is not prompt because there is a long delay between committing the crime, being convicted and being sent to prison.

Prison is unpleasant for most prisoners but there are other consequences to the offense e.g. financial gain or other forms of gratification.

Importance of Measuring Recidivism

Recidivism is an important feature in considering several core criminal justice topics, such as incapacitation, specific deterrence, and rehabilitation.

Incapacitation refers to the effect of a sanction intended to stop people from committing crime by removing them from the community on that community’s crime rate.

Specific deterrence is the term used to denote whether a sanction — such as arrest — stops people from committing a further crime once the sanction has been imposed or completed.

And, finally, rehabilitation refers to the extent that a program reduces crime by addressing the needs and deficits of the person who originally committed the crime.

Government agencies also use recidivism in evaluating the performance of prisons and studying the difference between the effectiveness of privately and publicly managed prisons.

In essence, if offenders stop committing crimes after their release, the prison is considered to be more successful. Ultimately, criminal desistance happens when an individual successfully maintains a permanent state of nonoffending.


Recidivism rates that measure treatment and program efficacy on subsequent criminal offending can vary widely.

These inconsistencies make it difficult to evaluate correctional techniques and treatment. There are several methodological reasons for this (Zgoba and Salerno, 2017).

The first cause of variation in recidivism rates concerns how researchers define the term recidivism. Recidivism can be defined both as any new offense or charge as well as any new specific offense.

Someone who has been convicted and imprisoned for a sexual offense, for instance, could have their recidivism rate measured by either whether they convicted another sexual assault or whether they convicted any crime, such as tax evasion.

Rice, Quinsey, and Harris (1991), for example, found that 58% of their sample was arrested for any new offense over a six-year follow-up period, compared with 31% for a new sexual offense.

Adding to this complexity in defining recidivism is whether or not surveyors consider a technical violation or an infraction within an institution or prison to be recidivism.

Defining, say, violations of parole as recidivism broadens its definition, producing potentially higher recidivism rates (Zgoba, Sager, & Witt, 2003).

Another variation in rates of recidivism measured by surveys concerns the validity of the data used to measure recidivism — the level of accuracy in reporting actual rates of re-offending.

Recidivism data can include measures of rearrest, reconviction, and re-incarceration, and each of these measures can have different levels of validity.

For example, calculating recidivism based on rearrest data could have a low level of accuracy, as many of these cases will not proceed to convictions.

Meanwhile, rates of recidivism based on reconviction or re-incarceration may reflect a higher level of accuracy. In general, studies that use rearrest data to measure recidivism will have higher rates of recidivism than those that use re-incarceration data.

In addition, specific legal processes such as plea bargaining can lead to inconsistencies that disproportionately lead to convictions (Zgoba and Salerno, 2017).

Another factor that impacts recidivism rates concerns the aggregation within a population of offenders. Many studies consider offenders to be a homogeneous group, without accounting for the different recidivism statistics across a diverse population of offenders.

However, this only works if the group of offenders is actually homogeneous — and there is evidence to indicate that, on the contrary, offenders are extremely heterogeneous in their offending patterns.

Rapists have been reported to have the highest levels of recidivism, followed by those who commit child molestation and incest (Deming, 2008; Freund, Watson, & Dickey, 1991).

By considering all sex offenders to be part of a homogeneous population, the rates of recidivism among this group effectively becomes an averaging process, where the recidivism rate is weighted by the representation of different types of offenders in the sample (Zgoba & Salerno, 2017).

A fourth factor that complicates the methodology of recidivism concerns how broad the follow-up time period for recidivism is. The longer the length of time to follow-up, the wider the window of opportunity for offenders to reoffend; and, as a result, the higher the rate of recidivism.

Recent recidivism studies have focused on longer time intervals to allow for a time-passage long enough to validly represent re-offending patterns (Zgoba & Salerno, 2017).

A fifth challenge with many recidivism studies is their apparent lack of control groups. Offenders are infrequently separated into treatment and nontreatment groups for ethical reasons. This makes it difficult to measure the effect that a treatment has on rates of recidivism.

One final methodological difficulty in recidivism studies is the perception that those who commit crimes will inevitably commit them again. This belief often exists alongside high rates of recidivism.

Because many people believe offenders to be mentally disturbed and untreatable, offenders may be driven to the fringes of society, motivating further criminal behavior (Zgoba & Salerno, 2017)


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Zgoba, K. M., & Salerno, L. M. (2017). A three-year recidivism analysis of state correctional releases. Criminal Justice Studies, 30(4), 331-345.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Charlotte Nickerson

Research Assistant at Harvard University

Undergraduate at Harvard University

Charlotte Nickerson is a student at Harvard University obsessed with the intersection of mental health, productivity, and design.