According to Statistics indicate that there are an alarming number of people in prison. McKean and Ransford (2004) there are increasing numbers of prisoners reoffending. According to their study, it is alarming that two- thirds of prisoners released are re-incarcerated in a span of three years after leaving prisons (McKean and Ransford, 2004). The issue needs to be addressed as it has effects on public safety, families and communities as well as the prisoners themselves (McKean and Ransford (2004).
Prison terms are meant to be a time for offenders to be rehabilitated. However some offenders find themselves back in prison after a second or more convictions. This is what is termed as recidivism. Recidivism can be explained as a person going back to criminal behaviors. Thus an individual with prior imprisonment gets arrested and convicted. Even as offenders are studied to learn why they reoffend, it is important to look at the ability of the prisons to rehabilitate compared to other non custodial terms.
For some people prisons seem shortsighted and unable to direct the offenders into acceptable behavior resulting in recidivism. To effectively reduce recidivism rates an examination of whether offenders are getting corrected during incarceration must be done. In addition offenders who leave prisons need to be helped to prepare for a crime-free life if recidivism is to be reduced. Prisons need programs to educate prisoners as well as offer counseling and guidance. The process would carried on after release so that individuals can be assisted to use the skills they gained during incarceration and maintain life without criminal behaviors (Pennsylvania Prison Society, 2004).
There are several theories under which the phenomenon of recidivism can be examined. According to the functionalist theory crime happens when there is no moral regulation because of structural tensions in a society. There are feelings of anxiety and disorientation modern society when traditional life breaks down. (Giddens, Duneier, & Appelbaum, 2005). When a persons undergoes stress due to social reality conflicting with societal norms. The individual reacts by rejecting values, rules and law and embrace defiance. Crime therefore is not because of ignorance and recidivism in not because of ignorance but rather due to this conflict. (Giddens, Duneier, & Appelbaum, 2005). Individuals engage in crime activities when they can not attain goals through legitimate means.
Another argument, the control theory, is that the environment has a bearing on individuals choice to engage in deviant behavior or not. Factors like poor education can influence some people to deviant lifestyle (Buchanan, T., 2007). The last argument, conflict theory explains crime as the result of social and economic forces in society. Interests and values that conflict give rise to crime. (Greek, C., 2005). The quantity of crime is dependent on many factors even for those who have been convicted and imprisoned. Unemployment and economic conditions, law enforcement policies and age may play a bigger role as motivators for crime compared to deterrence of crime through imprisonment (Ekland-Olson, S., Kelly, W.R. and Eisenberg, M, 1992).
A study was conducted by the Justice Department of Justice of prisoners released in 1994. The study showed the highest instances of re-arrest rates were larcenists, robbers and burglars, those with illegal weapons convictions and motor vehicle thieves (PCCD, 2003). Three years after release, 1.2% of those previously incarcerated for homicide were arrested for homicide. 2.5% of those who were previously incarcerated for rapes were arrested for another rape (Abolitionist, 2007). Recidivism therefore seem to be a factor in convictions (Abolitionists, 2007).
In a study by Killiaz and villetaz (2008) which was a review of systematic review of 23 studies from 300studies of recidivism they found that custodial sanction resulted in more recidivism than non custodial sanctions. In 11 out of 27 comparisons recidivism was noted as opposed to only two instances where alternative sanctions were used. This would seem to support the argument that imprisonment does not offer a better chance to reduce recidivism (Killiaz and villetaz, 2008. The causes of the crime before the fist conviction and after jail term are not radically affected by jail term (Killiaz and villetaz, 2008).
Another study was carried out by Bartell and Winfree, Jr. (1977). In their study they analyzed 100 offenders in New Mexico by examining their reconviction rates. During the year 1971, these offenders had been convicted burglary. Upon conviction 34 offenders were incarcerated, 45 put on probation and 21 fined, put on treatment or sent to give community service (Bartell and Winfree, Jr., 1977). The study after controlling statistically for type of burglary, age and prior convictions found that those imprisoned were more likely to be reconvicted than those who had been put on probation (Bartell and Winfree, Jr., 1977).. This study concluded that jail term does not offer a better chance to reduce recidivism than alternative methods of sanctions (Bartell and Winfree, Jr., 1977).
Another study was conducted by Walker, Farrington, and Tucker in England in 1981. They used a sample data of 2,069 male offenders. They studied the reconviction rates of the prisoners based on their different sentences including probation, fine, discharge, imprisonment and suspended sentence. The study statistically controlled for previous convictions, length of sentence and age. The study concluded that reconviction rates differed in relation to the offenders’ prior convictions (Walker, N., Farrington D.P. and Tucker, G., 1981). The highest reconviction rates were for offenders who had more than four prior convictions. For first offenders imprisonment however led to less reconviction compared to probation while remaining extra effective for offenders with more convictions (Walker, N., Farrington D.P. and Tucker, G., 1981). This would indicate that jail term served as a deterrent in the fist conviction but after that recidivism greatly increased despite jail terms (Walker, N., Farrington D.P. and Tucker, G., 1981).
A further study was conducted by Cohen, Eden, and Lazar in1981). The study examined offenders in Israel who had been convicted for serious felonies in 1978 and 1979. 48 % of the offenders received probation while 52 % were imprisoned (Cohen, B., Eden, R. and Lazar, A., 1991). Five years later in the follow up during which the prison terms and the probation were over the study found the recidivism rate to be 55.7 % among the group that received probation and 60% for the group that was imprisoned (Cohen, B., Eden, R. and Lazar, A., 1991). With statistical controlling for education, prior convictions and age, the study found recidivism rate did not appear to be associated with imprisonment or probation. Due to the recidivism being so high for the two groups, the study concluded that both probation and imprisonment are poor methods of preventing recidivism and did not deter crime to desirable levels (Cohen, B., Eden, R. and Lazar, A., 1991). In addition prison terms did not reduce recidivism being at a high 60% (Cohen, B., Eden, R. and Lazar, A., 1991).
A related study by Wheeler and Hissong (1988) contrasted the recidivism rates for misdemeanor offenders excluding drunk driving in Houston Texas. Some of the offenders received probation, some were fined and some imprisoned. For the study, recidivism was categorized as felony violation or any Class A or B misdemeanor (Wheeler and Hissong, 1988). The study conducted a follow-up after three years. After factoring in demographic factors and criminal history of offenders the study found that in terms of recidivism probation was better than jail sentences or fines in reducing reoffending (Wheeler and Hissong, 1988). Due to uncontrollable factors in the study like influenced prosecution the researchers concluded that the reason for probation being superior was due to mandatory post-disposition supervision procedures (Wheeler and Hissong, 1988). According to Wheeler and Hissong (1988) these would be superior to comparably shorter jail experiences.
In analyzing these studies it is clear that prisons terms are limited in reducing recidivism. Even when fist time offenders are deterred by jail terms once they reoffend, jail terms are not adequate to reduce recidivism compared to alternative methods. One of the reasons for this could be that during jail terms offenders learn criminal activities from other offenders. This would be in line with the argument that individuals are they are additional likely to engage in deviant behavior themselves when constantly exposed to deviant behavior in their environment (Buchanan, T., 2007). Criminal behavior can be seen to be learnt during the imprisonment period. Given the setting which is quite personal, crime committing techniques, attitudes and motives towards crime are gained (University of Minnesota Duluth, 2007).
Non violent criminals who get unreasonably long sentences become hardened during incarceration. They get greater criminal skill spending too much time in an environment cultivating violence. The offenders end up finding nothing wrong with their crime or even learning more crimes (Pennsylvania Prison Society, 2004). Additionally when an individual is labeled as a criminal they live up to that label. In the case of the studies offenders effectively labeled deviant further engage in criminal behavior having accepted the label and identified with it. (Buchanan, T., 2007).
Given the studies done societies are yet to understand the real reason for recidivism even after jail terms. The difficulty with evaluating the impact of jail term on recidivism is determining what the reoffending rate would be without the jail sentences ad experiences. A randomized controlled study would shed light on this as it would be relatively reliable. The question then would be why does recidivism occur even after imprisonment? What factors in jails do not allow or restrict reformation of criminals?
One of the reasons for recidivism is that prison does not offer consequences that match the crime. This results in criminals feeling that they got of easy and they are ot deterred from future crime. If the factors contributing to crime like poverty are not dealt with them the criminal feels they can continue to engage in the crime. The functionalist theory would explain the reasoning thus. If the jail terms are also not motivating enough to help criminals determined enough to refrain from crime, recidivism would also occur. Criminals who are mostly not ignorant of whether they are committing crimes or not do so after weighing the benefit and costs of their activities. However some crimes are committed by individuals who are incapacitated in one way or another. Some commit crime when under the influence of alcohol, drugs while some have mental conditions or illnesses. Without prisons serving to eradicating the cause of the incapacitation, the criminals will continue to reoffend.
Even with the current studies that have been done, more research is needed to determine the reasons why prisons are not effective in reducing recidivism and find out the conditions that they need to meet in order to achieve less recidivism.
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