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!

Be sure to share your comments in the Class Participation section below -- that's the best part! Also, you can use the arrows on your keyboard to flip through pages quickly.