Rehabilitation is a nice idea, but most people's first contact with the criminal justice system is their last, so there's nothing to rehabilitate.



To clear up some possible confusion: This is not about recidivism rates for people who were convicted and sent to prison (which is what most recidivism studies measure). This is about people who merely got arrested by the police, and whether they got arrested again.

Convicted felons actually have a high recidivism rate once released from prison (the numbers vary depending on what the study counts as “recidivism,” but it’s high any way you look at it). Similarly, people who have had more than one arrest tend to keep getting arrested. But these incorrigible repeat offenders are still a minority of the people who have had some contact with the criminal justice system. Most never come back.

This page is simply making the point that most people who get arrested only get arrested once. Their first arrest will be their only arrest. And thus rehabilitation would be a pointless goal when dealing with them.

With respect to citations, readers of this comic know that I go out of my way to avoid footnotes and case names and citations — this is not an academic article but a simple presentation of concepts for easy digestion. If you like, here is a 2004 U.S. Sentencing Commission report on first-offender recidivism. (To be sure, that’s 10 years old already. But it’s thorough, and it illustrates the situation well.) It reports that people who had never been arrested before only have a 6.8% recidivism rate — that’s 93.2% never getting in trouble with the law again. These people make up almost 30% of all offenders.

Those who may have been arrested before, but were never convicted before, had a 17.2% recidivism rate — roughly 83% never getting in trouble again. (I suspect it’s higher because it includes incorrigibles who “got away with it” the first time.) These are 8.4% of all offenders.

Interestingly, those who had been convicted before, but only of very minor offenses receiving little or no punishment, only had an 8.8% recidivism rate — closer to that of those who’d never been arrested before. I’d argue that these are not first-time offenders, but rather repeat offenders who got scared straight early on — people where deterrence and perhaps even rehabilitation actually worked. And they constitute a depressing 1.5% of all offenders.

These three categories of “first-time” offenders (of which I’d argue only two count) make up only about 40% of all offenders. 60% are the re-offenders who keep coming back.

If I were to re-write this page, I’d probable either change the 83% number to 93% — those whose first contact is their last — or clarify that the 83% number applies to those who’d never been convicted of a crime before, as opposed to never being arrested before. Not sure off the top of my head which approach is preferable. Again, the point to take away here is that the vast majority of people brought into the system will never come back again, and so it’s pointless to use criminal punishment to try to rehabilitate them.

Thanks for reading. I hope this clears up some of the confusion. Anyway, enjoy the rest of the comic –and as always, your questions, insights, and criticisms are all welcome in the comments!

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Join the conversation! There are now 3 comments on this chapter's page 8. Is Rehabilitation Necessary?. What are your thoughts?
  1. Andrew Farrell says

    I just realized… wouldn’t this only be a meaningful statistic if it was 80% of those people who are arrested but not charged?

    If a large proportion of those people who were imprisoned never committed crimes again, that would indicate that prison was effective at preventing further crime.

    • No, if we only looked at people whom the prosecutor decided not to charge, it wouldn’t really be relevant to the point being made here. And I suspect the recidivism rate would be even lower there, because it would be heavy with people who hadn’t actually committed an offense. The point is that even people who did commit an offense usually don’t reoffend, regardless of the punishment they may have received. Some may be scared straight, some may have committed a single crime of passion that will never happen again in their lifetime, and many just made a stupid one-off mistake. Some are punished heavily, some lightly, some not at all. But they don’t come back.

      Probation is literally a way for people charged with more serious offenses to “prove” that they don’t deserve the default punishment of incarceration. Some states have other ways of letting you prove you’re one of the good guys we don’t need to be concerned with, such as New York’s “Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal” — where you keep your nose clean for six months (or a year in some kinds of offenses), and then the case is dismissed the arrest officially never happened.

      But some people wind up in prison. Sadly, at least 60% of people released from prison wind up convicted of another crime within three years. That doesn’t even count those whose subsequent crimes are undetected or unproven. Prison seems to do little to prevent recidivism. There are some programs that can reduce that recidivism rate, but they tend to be available to those most likely to go straight in the first place.

      That means that imposition of a prison sentence actually correlates with an increased chance of recidivism. That doesn’t necessarily mean prison causes recidivism — after all, many get sent to prison because they were already recidivists and so weren’t given another second chance. But you have to wonder how many reoffenders would have stayed clean had they been punished in some other way.

      Unfortunately, prison has not been shown to be effective at preventing further crime.

      • Highly subjective opinions incoming. Prison is the worst thing for justice in it’s current form. Less punishment then a criminal training facility. Personally, I think it doesn’t go far enough into punishment to deter, and rehabilitation is half assed. As it is it feels like boot camp for crooks, it’s unpleasant but generally not abhorrent, and they leave after sharing lots of information how to be more efficient and those that enter who weren’t in gangs often leave as members. Unfortunately, many methods to effectively strengthen any of these points, let alone all, would be very costly. Perhaps all 1st time offenders could by default avoid prison, regardless of the crime. Risk determined on a case by case could determine the initial punishment, like house arrest or probation, with special facilities for high risk 1st offenders with dismal living conditions, but no interaction with repeat offenders.
        Then any repeat offenders get sent to prison, where either a lot of time and effort is put into improving the rehabilitation and deterrence aspects, or we simply increase the sentencing standards to keep them from society.

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