Recidivism: A failure of the Prison System


Recidivism means re-offending by a person who was previously convicted for a criminal offence. This shows a return to criminal behavior due to some reasons or the other. Prisons are places where a criminal comes to serve his punishment with the aim of becoming a better individual through the reformist approach of modern penal system. However, in cases of these individuals this reformist approach has completely failed which lead to them embracing criminal behavior as part of their personality and life instead of coming out of them with courage.

Statistics of various countries provides an outlook into the matter as to spread of this social stigma in their respective societies, multiple offending can be prevented by scientific and progressive steps in lieu of the social circumstances of the society. Proper surveillance and effective management of offenders in terms of their way of livelihood can help reduce the extent of this complex problem.      


Recidivism is that behavior which tends to incline an offender towards criminality even after being punished for the first offence. The concept of recidivism is a rather complex one given the number of variables it has. Recidivism is defined by many in different terms but all the views are remarkable. Though there is no universally accepted definition of recidivism it is defined by Merriam Webster Dictionary as “a tendency to relapse into a previous condition or mode of behavior especially: relapse into a criminal behavior”[1]. The Washington State Department of Corrections defines it as “any felony offence committed by an offender with 36 months of being at-risk in the community which results in a Washington State conviction”[2].


The prison system in the modern times is not only for service of the punishment but also for bring the mental state of the offender to a permanent state of non-offending and this is done through a lot of rehabilitation programs in prisons. Despite of all these efforts the theory of bringing a criminal out of their mental state of criminality has failed because the prison exposes a convict with other hardened criminal which takes a big toll at the rehabilitation program. In order to reduce this, the principle of differential classification of criminals was tried in which the convicts of similar kind of offences were kept together but this didn’t yield any result. On the contrary this also resulted in an increase in recidivism because still there were criminals with higher propensities of criminality. The Supreme Court has summed the condition of prisons in the case of Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration[3] as “For years and years, prisoners don’t see a child, a woman or even animals. They lose touch with the outside world. They brood and wrap themselves in angry thoughts of fear and revenge and hatred; forget the good of the world, kindness and joy”.


  1. Education– The society in today’s time is highly competitive and very demanding alongside being ruthless. Education not only gives knowledge but also the mental toughness to fight in difficult situations. Uneducated people who could not withstand the competition put their energy in criminal activities. Further the condition in prison is less competitive and one don’t have to work very hard to earn livelihood and this gives an easy escape route to these people who then repeatedly indulge in criminal activities.
  2. Inappropriate Punishment–Punishment acts as a deterrent so that the offender does not think of doing the act again. However, there is a very fine margin of error in it as any inappropriate punishment will take the effect of deterrence out of it. Punishment is a subjective matter and should be given in accordance with each case and not by strict adherence to law books. If the punishment is lenient, it will not make the convict reconsider his move, if the punishment is harsh, it will bring dissatisfaction towards societal norms.
  3. Lack of reintegration opportunities –If a person is convicted with a long sentence by the time he comes back the society would have changed, the technology would have advanced, and the ideals would have changed too. This could be a big problem for a person trying to bring himself back in the mainstream and creates an acute circumstance where a person is reoffending not because of personal attitude but because of his incompetence to survive in the new social order.
  4. Financial crisis –In today’s materialistic world, success is measured by the financial stability one has and if a person do not get the opportunity to achieve his ambitions, an insurgence in the criminal industry is obvious because it provides illegitimate means of achieving ambitions.


The statistical data of various countries differ significantly because of no standard data interpretation. Further, the lack of crime reporting is another nail in this coffin. According to the data of Bureau of Justice Statistics, United States of America, almost 68% of the convicted criminals re-offend within a period of three years[4]. The condition in United Kingdom is that around 26%of the convicted re-offend within a year. The data in India by the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2014 out of the total of 37, 90, 812 arrested people only 2, 95, 740 were re-offenders which is around 7.8%[5]. The numbers in India are low but studies suggest countries with better correctional system generally have higher rate. The numbers in European countries are worrying to say the least.


In criminal Procedure code, section 41 provides that a habitual offender can be arrested even without an arrest warrant by the Magistrate. Further, section 110 discusses about the requirement of bond as a security for good behavior from habitual offenders. The Indian Penal Code provides for provision relating to person who deals in stolen property habitually through section 413. The Indian Evidence Act through its section 54 lays that previous bad character is not very relevant unless the question is of character of the person.


‘No society can stop happening of crimes’, is a basic saying across the world but recidivism is a failure of the society as well as prison system. So, it is important that both of them show improvement and make this world a better place to live in. Insofar as the society is concerned it has to change its approach towards the offenders, they are not born criminals; they became criminals thanks to some misunderstanding of societal norms. Education can bring proper understanding and this can be a possible solution[6].

The prison system has also tried certain measure:

  1. Probation –it is a treatment device in which a convicted person lives in the society and regulates his life in accordance with the conditions laid by the court. It is the result of the recognition of this principle that the purpose of the criminal law is more to reform the criminal than to punish[7].
  2. Parole –It is the release of a convict on humanitarian grounds to see how he can fit in the system of society. There is no supervision of the court here[8]. It serves two purposes firstly, it is a punishment in itself as there is a threat to return to jail; secondly it is efficient measure of safety and treatment reaction to crime.
  3. Rehabilitation –The basic object of correctional system is bringing the convict back in the mainstream. They must be helped to make sure they earn their livelihood lawfully and must be kept under surveillance to keep the society protected.

[1]“Recidivism”, Merriam Webster Dictionary (last visited June 3 2020)

[2]Michael Evans, “Recidivism Revisited”, Washington State Department of Corrections (last visited June 3 2020)

[3]AIR1980 SC 1579

[4]Mariel Alper, Matthew R. Durose and Joshua Markman, “Special Report”, Bureau of Justice Statistics (last visited June 4, 2020)

[5]“Recidivism”, National Crime Records Bureau (last visited June 4, 2020)

[6]N.V. Paranjape, Criminology and Penology(including victimology) 467(17th Edition, Central Law Publication,2017)

[7]Rattan Lal v. State of Punjab, AIR 1965 SC 444

[8]J.L.Gillin, Criminology and Penology, 339 (3rd edition, D.Appleton-century and co., 1945)

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