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

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