Thesis: Recidivism Among Violent Criminals

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Recidivism Among Violent Criminals in the United States Today

One of the more ironic aspects of life in the "land of the free" is the fact that the United States continues to incarcerate more of its citizens than any other industrialized nation of the world. The purpose of the study was three-fold in that it sought to answer the guiding research questions: (a) What is the national rate of recidivism for violent crimes in the United States for the past 20 years or so? (b) what factors and variables tend to influence sentences for repeat violent crime offenders? And - how does a repeat violent crime defendant's level of education affect the severity of sentencing received? To answer these questions, this study used a mixed methodology consisting of a review of the relevant peer-reviewed, scholarly and governmental literature and statistics concerning recidivism rates in general and those rates as they apply to violent criminals in the United States over the past 2 decades in particular. A summary of the findings and recommendations for policymakers and criminal justice officials alike is provided in the conclusion.


Today, the United States continues to incarcerate more of its citizens than virtually any other developed nation in the world, and many of these inmates are labeled as habitual criminals who have made a trade or career out of crime. Admittedly, many of these inmates - and perhaps the vast majority of them - belong behind bars, but the research will clearly show that there is a fundamental disparity among sentencing regimens used for defendants who are perceived to be less educated than those who are not, particularly as this perception relates to the defendant's potential for committing future crimes. Not surprisingly, these disparities become especially evidence when sentencing variables such as the educational levels of the criminals involved is taken into account. These variables are important because studies have shown time and again that notwithstanding the sentencing strictures established by law, judges frequently go beyond these established guidelines to provide some defendants with more "slack" than others.

Research Questions

This study was guided by the following research questions:

What is the national rate of recidivism for violent crimes in the United States for the past 20 years or so?

What factors and variables tend to influence sentences for repeat violent crime offenders?

How does a repeat violent crime defendant's level of education affect the severity of sentencing received?

Importance of the Study

The economic costs associated with incarcerating millions of people in the nation's prison system are enormous, but the adverse social effect of locking up all of these individuals is inestimable. Hundreds of thousands of fathers and mothers are imprisoned to the detriment of their children and other family members, and current trends indicate that things are going to get worse before they get better. In this environment, identifying disparities and incongruities in sentencing practices and defendant characteristics that may contribute to a higher incidence of violent crime just makes good sense.

Review of the Literature

In a perfect world where resources were abundant, there would likely be far less crime and the need for penitentiaries from the outset. Alas, the world of the 21st century in particular has quickly proven to be a less than benign environment and it is little wonder that some people resort to crime out of desperation from time to time out of extenuating circumstances such as the need to feed a starving family. When people make crime an occupation, though, they are viewed in a far different light when it comes time to adjudicate them. According to Black's Law Dictionary (1991), a "recidivist" is "a habitual criminal, a criminal repeater. An incorrigible criminal. One who makes a trade of crime" (1269). Recidivists, then, represent a particular challenge to law enforcement authorities based on their declared predilection for crime. There are different types of recidivists, though, that must be taken into account in this social analysis. The overwhelming majority of criminals in the United States today are criminal only by virtue of their involvement in either the drug trade or through substance abuse.

Two studies come closest to providing "national" recidivism rates for the United States. One tracked 108,580 State prisoners released from prison in 11 States in 1983. The other tracked 272,111 prisoners released from prison in 15 States in 1994. The prisoners tracked in these studies represent two-thirds of all the prisoners released in the United States for that year ().

More than two-thirds (67.5%) of prisoners released in 1994 were rearrested within 3 years, an increase over the 62.5% found for those released in 1983 ().

Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994

Reports on the rearrest, reconviction, and reincarceration of former inmates who were tracked for 3 years after their release from prisons in 15 States in 1994. The former inmates represent two-thirds of all prisoners released in the United States that year. The report includes prisoner demographic characteristics (gender, race, Hispanic origin, and age), criminal record, types of offenses for which they were imprisoned, the effects of length of stay in prison on likelihood of rearrest, and comparisons with a study of prisoners released in 1983. According to Kowalski and Caputo (1999), "Research examining recidivism indicates that male recidivists are more likely than their female counterparts to receive a custodial disposition" (p. 57). These differences is sentencing disparity also extend to the type of crime involved. For example, released prisoners with the highest rearrest rates were categorized by the Department of Justice as being: robbers (70.2%), burglars (74.0%), larcenists (74.6%), motor vehicle thieves (78.8%), those in prison for possessing or selling stolen property (77.4%), and those in prison for possessing, using, or selling illegal weapons (70.2%) (Bureau of Statistics, 2008).

Within 3 years, 2.5% of released rapists were arrested for another rape, and 1.2% of those who had served time for homicide were arrested for homicide. The 272,111 offenders discharged in 1994 had accumulated 4.1 million arrest charges before their most recent imprisonment and another 744,000 charges within 3 years of release. These figures were obtained from "Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994"

The rearrest rate for property offenders, drug offenders, and public-order offenders increased significantly from 1983 to 1994. During that time, the rearrest rate increased: from 68.1% to 73.8% for property offenders; from 50.4% to 66.7% for drug offenders; and from 54.6% to 62.2% for public-order offenders. The rearrest rate for violent offenders remained relatively stable (59.6% in 1983 compared to 61.7% in 1994) ().

Overall, reconviction rates did not change significantly from 1983 to 1994. Among those prisoners released in 1983, 46.8% were reconvicted within 3 years compared to 46.9% among those released in 1994. From 1983 to 1994, reconviction rates remained stable for released violent offenders (41.9% and 39.9%, respectively); property offenders (53.0% and 53.4%); and public-order offenders (41.5% and 42.0%) (). Among drug offenders, the rate of reconviction increased significantly, going from 35.3% in 1983 to 47.0% in 1994.

The 1994 recidivism study estimated that within 3 years, 51.8% of prisoners released during the year were back in prison either because of a new crime for which they received another prison sentence, or because of a technical violation of their parole. This rate was not calculated in the 1983 study ().

There are currently some prison educational programs being offered across the country, but the research shows that these are largely related to rehabilitative goals. According to DeRosia (1998), "There are psychological programs such as psychotherapy, behavior modification, or cognitive skill building, as well as special programs for anger control, self-reliance or daily living, family living, substance abuse, sex offending, or prerelease" (p. 20).


It was the hypothesis of this study that defendants who are male, of minority status, and who are less well educated will tend to receive harsher sentences compared with their white counterparts who are convicted for identical crimes and criminal histories. This hypothesis is congruent with past studies that have linked defendants' ethnicity to preexisting concepts of their dangerousness and tendency towards recidivism (Albonetti, 1997). According to an analysis of the variables that tended to influence sentence severity who were sentenced during the period 1991-1992, Albonetti found that "disparity in federal sentencing of drug offenders is linked not only to offense-related variables, but also to defendant characteristics such as ethnicity, gender, educational level, and noncitizenship, which are specified as legally irrelevant" (p. 789).

Methods review of the available research methodologies indicated that a mixed methodology would be most appropriate for achieving the above-stated research questions. The first component of the mixed methodology consisted of a review of the relevant peer-reviewed, scholarly and governmental literature. In this regard, Fraenkel and Wallen (2001) advise that, "Researchers usually dig into the literature to find out what has already been written about the topic they are interested in investigating. Both the opinions of experts in the field and other research studies are of interest. Such reading is referred to as a review of the literature" (p.… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Recidivism Among Violent Criminals.  (2008, December 23).  Retrieved October 16, 2019, from

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"Recidivism Among Violent Criminals."  23 December 2008.  Web.  16 October 2019. <>.

Chicago Format

"Recidivism Among Violent Criminals."  December 23, 2008.  Accessed October 16, 2019.