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Once a Criminal Always a Criminal? A Closer Look at Recidivism

Once a criminal, always a criminal? That is a question researchers are looking to answer. A prominent study by the Bureau of Justice shows 77% of 405,000 prisoners across 30 states released from prison in 2005 were arrested for a new crime within five years of getting out.

Recidivism is a term used to describe the act of repeating negative behavior despite experiencing negative consequences of the behavior. The type of crime originally committed played a role in the recidivism rate as over 82 percent of prisoners that served time for a property offense recommitted a crime compared to approximately 71 percent of violent offenders.

Additionally, 77 percent of drug offenders and 74 percent of public order offenders were arrested for a new crime. The latter include weapons offenses, DUIs and miscellaneous crimes that do not fall into another category.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) of the judicial branch released a study entitled Recidivism Among Federal Offenders: A Comprehensive Overview which concluded nearly 50 percent of former inmates who were released from federal prisons or placed on probation in 2005 had been arrested again within eight years. The research was based on 25,400 former inmates.

Felons in the Military

Other research paints a more favorable picture for people who argue that criminals deserve a second chance, such as a study of military recruiting practices by University of Massachusetts at Amherst sociologist Jennifer Lunquist and co-authors Devah Pager of Harvard and Amherst colleague Eiko Strader.

The study focused on 5,000 recruits who had committed felonies prior to joining. While most people are unable to enlist if they have committed a felony, the military makes some exceptions in the form of conduct waivers to a select few who successfully complete a rigorous screening process. The study concluded termination rates of military personnel were no higher for those with criminal histories than those without, with a couple of exceptions and controlled for certain demographic factors.

Lundquist argues businesses could learn something from this military study when it comes to making hiring decisions based on a criminal past. “[Businesses] may be losing out by just banning ex-felons altogether who turn out to be pretty good employees when given that chance–and when properly screened,” Lundquist said.

Two Drastically Different Views

Americans remain divided on the subject, some in support of harsher punishment including longer sentences and others pushing for a deeper understanding of the underlying causes of crime. Those who want to gain a clearer perspective of a person’s past sometimes turn to background check services in order find answers.

People who feel criminal acts are the result of free will and choice are more likely to support harsher punishment than those who believe crimes are a product of external conditions and societal limitations, according to Shadd Maruna and Anna King, authors of Once a Criminal, Always a Criminal?: ‘Redeemability’ and the Psychology of Punitive Public Attitudes.

Maruna and King found evidence to support their hypothesis that personal attributions (stability/instability) play a prominent role in how people form opinions about punishment severity for crimes and criminal responsibility.

Can Criminals Change?

Journalist Nancy Mullane argues the public can learn a lot about rehabilitation from criminals, particularly convicted killers who have been released.

“People can change,” Mullane said in an interview, citing her research which she says taught her that convicted killers have a lower recidivism rate than non-violent offenders.

Some people point the finger at the laws on the books when it comes to incarceration rate and repeat offenders.

Evan Feinberg of Stand Together argues the growing number of federal criminal laws is turning more Americans into criminals on a daily basis. Feinberg is advocating for a reduction in punishment for nonviolent crimes, more respect between communities and police as well as greater record-sealing and expungement for youthful, nonviolent offenders.

To paraphrase Feinberg, giving ex-nonviolent offenders a second chance may go a long way to ensuring those who once committed crimes will not always be a criminal.

A Change in Thinking

When it comes to the criminal justice system and perception of criminals, others stand by Feinberg’s opinion that things need to change.

Doctor Carolyn Côté-Lussier, assistant professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa, states that public opinion is key when it comes to criminal justice reform in her research on the link between social inequality and approval of harsh criminal justice.

Others are lobbying for programs in jails and prisons that empower criminals to break the cycle.

Jack Bush, co-developer of treatment program Thinking For A Change, wrote on NPR.com that adding treatment programs to sentences would give criminals hope in the meantime and future benefits for society. Bush cites Viktor Frankl’s passage in Man’s Search For Meaning which states, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Rather than assuming a criminal will almost certainly recommit a crime one day, Bush encourages people to see criminals as “fellow human beings” and provide opportunities for ex-offenders to be productive members of society.