Handcuffs placed atop fingerprint chart in fileRecidivism occurs when someone repeats criminal behavior even after being incarcerated, fined, or experiencing some other serious consequence within the criminal justice system.

What is Recidivism?

Most people define recidivism as re-incarceration at any point in a person’s life after he has been incarcerated. Different governmental organizations, however, offer different definitions. The Bureau of Justice Statistics defines recidivism as “criminal acts that resulted in the rearrest, reconviction, or return to prison with or without a new sentence during a three-year period following the prisoner’s release.” Under this definition, the Bureau estimates the recidivism rate at 16% for 2007, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

What Causes Recidivism?

Recidivism poses a significant problem for the criminal justice system because, although punishment serves many purposes, one of its primary goals is to reduce the likelihood that a person will repeat a future criminal act. Many organizations have dedicated themselves to studying the problem of recidivism and to enacting criminal justice reforms to reduce the rate of recidivism. The cause of recidivism is complex and likely due to a combination of personal, sociological, economic, and lifestyle factors.

Common explanations for recidivism include:

  • Elements within the criminal justice system might make someone more likely to engage in criminal behavior. For example, an incarcerated person might meet drug dealers with whom he or she can network or might have to behave in a highly aggressive way to avoid being assaulted in prison.
  • Previous incarcerations can interfere with a person’s ability to obtain gainful employment both because of the person’s criminal record and because time in prison is time away from employment and the opportunity to gain skills.
  • Jail or prison likely does not remedy the factors that caused a person to engage in criminal activity in the first place. In some cases, incarceration can exacerbate these problems. For example, a person with mental illness might not receive treatment in jail, causing their mental health issues to become worse. A significant portion of the incarcerated population has some type of mental health condition.


  1. Recidivism. (n.d.). Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). Retrieved from
  2. Recidivism. (n.d.). National Institute of Justice. Retrieved from

Last Updated: 01-24-2018

  • Leave a Comment
  • Bonnie S

    August 27th, 2019 at 2:55 PM

    The fees and fines need to be reduced so IF THEY CAN FIND A JOB, they can earn a living wage otherwise, they have no encouragement.

  • Lynne

    November 18th, 2019 at 7:57 AM

    Add PTSD to your list of causes of “recidivism “ I refer you to the list of PTSD causes and PTSD is an injury not mental illness. PTSD relevant to Habitual behavior and recidivism. Also PTSD a psychological weapon? Note “entrapment “ as in the practice whereby state and Federal law induces a person to commit a criminal offense that the person would have otherwise not been arrested for”.

  • Cynthia

    April 17th, 2020 at 1:19 PM

    Recidivism is almost always a given , The former inamtes have absolutely no support . No help with employment, living arrangement, or mental health. the cause of PTSD is caused by the horrific experiences the former inmate is exposed to in prison . The have no protection from that. other inmates and prision officials are the causes of abuse in that setting

  • Paul

    November 22nd, 2021 at 4:28 AM

    I am a “White House Boy” the juvenile justis system was on my neck at eight years old. Running away from home and ending up in trouble , again..reform school at 14-15 . In juvi court again at 16 , sentenced to 4 years in prison or the Marine Corps. In adult court at 18 yr old sent to prison and I’ve been back 6 times. RECIDIVISM in a big way. 67 yrs old now and struggling on my own.

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