Law enforcement and corrections officers have long considered the question of rehabilitation versus punishment as the most efficient and beneficial way to deal with criminals. From this has arisen the debate of what to do with repeat offenders. Repeat offenders who are not mentally challenged or adolescent present a problem for the criminal justice system. While a person who is arrested the first time for a crime may simply have made a mistake and learned from it, a person who repeatedly commits the same crime seems to be less likely to be rehabilitated.

Thus, the debate rages about whether or not rehabilitation is effective for repeat criminals. Even though it may not be effective, the pressures to rehabilitate prisoners and return them to the general population are numerous. First, prisons are hugely overcrowded. Every state is experiencing this problem, and some systems arehaving to exit prisoners early and move women or juveniles into the prisons with men (Scobell, 1993).

Next, people want to believe in the general good of human beings and the effectiveness of new programs to achieve this. Of course, burdens also stand in the way. Many prisoners are not high school graduates and with a felony record, they are not generally hirable in society. As a result, they are not able to make ends meet and return to crime. Others feel that some criminals, particularly sexual criminals, such as child molesters and rapists, are psychologically more difficult to rehabilitate.

First, prisons are horribly overcrowded so many people are eager to believe that rehabilitation can work because then many repeat offenders can be returned to society. A task force at the Jacksonville Correctional center studied the rate of recidivism and found that reducing the rate by just 5 percent would free up 500 spots and save the system one and a half million dollars (Scobell, 1993). This seems like a very small number to achieve, and the result would ease much of the burden of overcrowding and lack of resources in the majority of prison systems.

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As a result, many corrections officers such as Howard Peters, Illinois State Corrections Administrator, believes that people in prison should be trained to become a law-abiding citizen to reduce their likelihood of returning to prison. Since one/fifth of repeat offenders are in prison for drug-related crimes, substance abuse programs are particularly important. In addition, inmates you return to prison have often failed to find work. Peters hopes that funding programs in prisons to help people get education and training for jobs.

He says, The extent to which we can take people who are illiterate and teach them to be literate, at least above the sixth or eighth grade level, increases their chances of being law-abiding. If we can take an unskilled person and give him or her a trade or at the very least an introduction to a trade, it increases their chances that they can get a job and be law-abiding. Otherwise, the chances are they are going to go out and commit more crime and come right back (Scobell, 1993).

However, in spite of the monetary and space benefits, many people do not believe that repeat offenders can become “safe” enough to return to society. The Repeat Offender Prosecution Project (ROPE) notes that nothing thus far has been able to reverse the trend of repeat criminal offenses. According to the criminologists, 6% of the criminals in America commit 70% of the crimes. According to this project, the increase in repeat offenders between 1996 and 1999 rose by 75%. This represents a safety issue for the United States. It stands to reason that if we can identify this 6% and incarcerate them for as long as possible, the crime rate will decrease and out city will be a safer place to live” (ROPE, 2000).

The statistics are concerning:

  • Of the 272,111 persons released from prisons in 15 states in 1994, an estimated 67.5% were rearrested for a felony or serious misdemeanor within 3 years.
  • 46.9% were reconvicted.
  • 25.4% were re-sentenced to prison for a new crime.
  • The 272,111 offenders discharged in 1994 accounted for nearly 4,877,000 arrest charges over their recorded careers.

Some types of criminals show a particularly high level of repeat offending. These are sex offenders and drug and alcohol offenders. One study notes that sex offenders are “more likely to commit subsequent sexual offenses than the general criminal population” (Bynum, 2001). Child molesters and exhibitionists make the most repeat offenses, followed by rapists (Bynum, 2001). Because of the nature of these crimes, the public is understandably concerned about allowing them out for parole, even with the enforcement of many state registries.

In addition, many sexual offenses go unreported, so the rate of repeat offenses is more than likely greater because of these unreported occurrences (Bynum, 2001). Another area of increased repeat offenses is Driving Under the Influence (DUI) offenses. One third of all DUI arrests are repeat offenses. In addition, one in every eight fatal crashes involving alcohol involves a driver with a prior conviction for DUI (Repeat DWI Offenders in the United States, 1995). With this kind of increased rates of repeat offenses, it does seem like drunk drivers cannot be rehabilitated.

The same statistics hold true of drug offenders, studies show. Repeat offenders in the United States are a growing problem. While many people feel like rehabilitation efforts are becoming more useful and beneficial, they don’t seem to be helping all types of offenders equally. Sex offenders and drug and alcohol offenders seem the most “immune” to the benefits of rehabilitation. While new procedures and techniques are becoming available for rehabilitative uses, more research is needed before we release these individuals into the generals population.


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