Recidivism and How the criminal justice system perpetuates the problem

In the US, 83% of released state prisoners are arrested for a new offense at least once after their initial release. The justice system is failing people while incarcerated, and even more so with the complicated bureaucratic hoops they must jump through after their release.
People Impacted
$ 156B
Potential Funding
I have this challenge
the problem
Nature and Context

Formerly-incarcerated citizens must repeatedly engage with parole, public assistance agencies, transitional housing facilities, and community-based service providers to maintain freedom and access food, shelter, and rehabilitative services. Accessing resources requires them to simultaneously manage multiple, overlapping entanglements across a fragmented network of bureaucracies. This runaround exacerbates the stress of poverty, breeds distrust of state authorities, and, in some cases, precipitates recidivism. Former prisoners learn how to cope with the runaround by treating systems navigation as a full-time occupation, but these skills do not translate into long-term economic security.

Symptoms and Causes


When someone finally gets released from prison, even if they want to live a normal life and be a productive member of society, their employment options are severely limited.

It’s estimated that an individual who has a felony on their record has 50 percent less likelihood of getting a callback from employers. The lack of employment options leads to a lack of finances. Lack of finances leads former inmates into desperation. And desperation leads back to crime (Occupy).


Jail or prison likely does not remedy the factors that caused a person to engage in criminal activity in the first place. In some cases, incarceration can exacerbate these problems. For example, a person with mental illness might not receive treatment in jail, causing their mental health issues to become worse. A significant portion of the incarcerated population has some type of mental health condition (Good Therapy).


Many studies show that prison programs which provide institutional programming have lower recidivism rates among those who are released. Programs for the incarcerated, such as anger management, vocational skills training, educational opportunities, and even trauma support groups, are vital to ensuring inmates who are reintroduced to society have the life skills necessary to stay on the right path. For example, participants in prison substance abuse programs recidivate at a much lower rate than those who do not participate, but many prisons fail to secure funding for these kinds of programs.

Rates of recidivism are also affected by the reentry services provided to individuals released from prison on parole or as a result of a determinate sentence. In many states, exonerees do not have access to reentry services provided to parolees, although they are in need of the same support. The exonerated often suffer from PTSD, lack occupational training and skills, and cope with other issues related to the years they spent wrongfully incarcerated (Innocence Project).


For those who have served long sentences in prison, it’s not surprising that some inmates are intimidated and overwhelmed upon release.

Being incarcerated forces an individual into a rigid schedule and they are required to follow rules every single day. While the monotony is undoubtedly tiresome, it also doesn’t give inmates the chance to experience freedom of choice.

Once they are released, aside from regular meetings with a parole officer, they have much more freedom and this can lead to them feeling overwhelmed and full of anxiety, which sometimes leads to substance abuse to cope with the issues (Occupy).

the impact
Negative Effects

When criminals continually commit crimes, it makes the United States, and the world, a more dangerous place. That said, a better question to ask is who is responsible to correct recidivism? The immediate answer is the individuals who commit the crimes. However, the real answer is much more complex than that (Occupy).

Poor Communities of Color Pay the Price

Marginalized communities are particularly affected in social and economic terms, via experiencing insufficient public safety, erosion of social relationships, and pervasive intergenerational poverty. Incarceration has a negative effect on economic mobility, with fiscal consequences not only for the formerly incarcerated but their families and communities as well (PSF).

Cyclical Incarceration Rates

With regard to the rise in incarceration, our results demonstrate that imprisonment leads to future imprisonment. In other words, prison’s figurative revolving door has real causal force, rather than being the simple consequence of imprisonment of individuals at higher risk for future offending. For example, being sentenced to prison rather than probation increases the probability of a future prison admission within 3 y after release by 18–19 percentage points. These results imply that the rise in incarceration was to some degree self-generating, as imprisonment creates more imprisonment (PNAS).

Economic Impact

The Cost of Incarceration and Recidivism

The U.S. has five percent of the world’s population yet incarcerates 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, incarcerating at a rate 4 to 7 times higher than other Western nations. This corrections system impacts American taxpayers over $80 billion per year.

This statistic alone shows that the United States has a mass incarceration problem, which leads to a high recidivism problem (Occupy).

According to the Center for American Progress, criminal recidivism reduces annual GDP by $65 billion a year. Moving to a less punitive criminal justice system in which prisoners have access to more educational and job-training opportunities would reduce recidivism, and, by expanding the labor force, boost the economy. Furthermore, removing occupational licensing laws that prevent ex-criminals from entering certain professions would help accelerate economic reintegration (FEE).

Success Metrics
  • Secure funding nationwide for counseling and management programs for the incarcerated

  • Refocus efforts being made by reentry programs

  • Reduce the incarceration rate to begin with

  • Secure the vote for the disenfranchised

  • Safer Communities

  • A more compassionate society that offers second chances

who benefits from solving this problem
Organization Types
  • Private and Public Prisons

  • The American Justice System

  • Drug and Alcohol Dependency Programs

  • Colleges/Universities

  • City and State Governments

  • Prisoners

  • Lawyers

  • Parole Officers

  • Families of Prisoners

Ideas Description

Apps that assist record expungement

Record Sponge is free web software to automate eligibility analysis and assist the filing process for record expungement in Oregon. For many folks who have had run-ins with the criminal justice system, punishment doesn't end with the end of their sentence. A criminal conviction or arrest can follow a person around for the rest of their life, well past the period of incarceration, probation, and financial penalty. The State of Oregon provides a way for people to seal certain items from their records (effectively removing them), but the rules for determining which items are eligible are complex and prone to error when applying them by hand. As a result, expungement analysis is expensive in Portland - ranging from $1,000 to $3,000 when performed by private attorneys. RecordSponge is completed web software that automates the analysis for record expungement eligibility in Oregon.

The Washington Conviction Vacation Project reduces barriers faced by formerly incarcerated individuals by streamlining process of vacating eligible convictions in Washington state. Nearly one in four people in Washington State have been involved in the criminal justice system. Washington recently enacted the New Hope Act that makes it easier for people with past criminal records to have their convictions vacated. Conviction vacation removes significant barriers to housing and employment, improving the chances of successful reentry into society and making recidivism less likely.

Tech Solutions and Services:

There are an estimated 2 million people who are eligible to clear convictions from their records. Clear My Record is a free online tool that helps people with eligible convictions to navigate the complicated journey toward clearing their records. It's a Code For America project which helps to removes a significant barriers for people with a criminal record.

With Pigeonly you can search, find & connect with your inmate. We provide you a simple, affordable way to stay in touch with your inmate from any phone, tablet, or computer. Our goal is to make sure you always have everything you need to support your incarcerated loved one.

Honest Jobs is a national job marketplace for people who have been affected by the criminal justice system. We help people with criminal records find employment fast! And we help employers (nearly 400 companies in our first year) by offering technology that makes it easy to offer fair-chance employment while staying compliant with EEOC guidelines.

fINEQUITY is an early-stage organization working to create a free financial inclusion tool for incarcerated people. Our mission is to create pathways to economic security for New Yorkers impacted by long-term incarceration.

Socialwyze connects people facing housing insecurity and financial distress with public benefit jobs from trusted local nonprofits. We coordinate immediate, low-barrier work that people can perform on their own time, in their own communities. Our constituents automatically build up digital resumes, allowing them to create credibility with landlords and future full-time employers.

ReliablyME empowers formerly incarcerated individuals with a good character credential that complements their resume with evidence of their reliability, personal integrity, and self/social worth based on evidence of their committed actions in order to ease their access to employment, housing, credit, education, and communities.

Input Needed From Contributing Editors
(click on any tag to contribute)