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The behavior of a repeat or habitual criminal. A measurement of the rate at which offenders commit other crimes, either by arrest or conviction baselines, after being released from incarceration.

Both state and federal laws have been enacted in an attempt to reduce the number of repeat or habitual offenses. For example, Washington's habitual criminal statute imposes a minimum sentence of ten years imprisonment for persons convicted of a second felony, third misdemeanor, or third petit larceny. Furthermore, in the event that a person is convicted of a third felony, fifth misdemeanor, or a fifth petit Larceny, the statute imposes a life sentence (Wash. Rev. Code § 9.92.090 [1996]).

Another state that has enacted a recidivism statute is California. California's recidivism statute, more commonly known as the three-strikes law, increases sentencing when the recidivist commits additional crimes. If the criminal is convicted of a second felony, the sentence doubles the sentence of the first-time felon, and if convicted of a third violent crime or serious felony, the person will be sentenced to triple the sentence of a first-time felon, or 25 years imprisonment, whichever is greater (Cal. Penal Code § 667 [West 1996]). The three-strikes law was passed in 1994, after a voter Referendum received 71 percent support. The ballot measure was prompted by the 1993 abduction-murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas in Petaluma, California. The killer, Richard Allen Davis, was a twice-convicted kidnapper who had been on Parole after serving only half of a 16-year prison term for the second Kidnapping. Because of the way the law is written, however, offenders with prior criminal records are being put behind bars for life for non-felony offenses such as petty theft and shoplifting.

In March 2003, the Supreme Court ruled on two separate cases Ewing v. California, 538 U.S. 11, 123 S. Ct. 1179, 155 L. Ed. 2d 108 (2003), and Lockyer v. Andrade,, 538 U.S. 63, 123 S. Ct. 1166, 155 L. Ed. 2d 144 (2003), both involving California's law providing for mandatory prison terms of 25 years to life for those convicted for the third time of a felony. The Court failed to overturn the law, despite arguments that the sentences of those challenging the law constituted cruel and usual punishment in violation of the Eight Amendment. The federal government and 26 states now have a three strikes-type law, imposing as much as a life prison term for criminals convicted of a third felony.

Congress also responded to the recidivism rates in the United States by enacting the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (Pub. L. No. 103-322, 108 Stat. 1796). This act mandates life imprisonment for the commission of a serious violent felony or a combination of two or more serious felonies or drug offenses.

There are many ideas on how to solve the problem of recidivism. Some of these include requiring literacy programs in penal institutions, electronic monitoring of home confinement, greater use of halfway houses, and "boot camp" programs consisting of military marching, discipline, physical training, work, classes, and drug and alcohol treatment for young, first-time offenders.

Further readings

Brooks, Justin. 1994. "Keeping the Jailhouse Lawyer Out of Jail." Criminal Justice 9 (summer).

Burns, Jerald C., and Gennaro F. Vito. 1995. "An Impact Analysis of the Alabama Boot Camp Program." Federal Probation 59 (March).

Farrington, David P., and Roger Tarling, eds. 1985. Prediction in Criminology. Albany, N.Y.: State Univ. of New York Press.

McClain, Meredith. 1996. "'Three Strikes and You're Out': The Solution to the Repeat Offender Problem?" Seton Hall Legislative Journal 20 (July).

Potts, Jeff. 1993. "American Penal Institutions and Two Alternative Proposals for Punishment." South Texas Law Review 34 (October).

Zamble, Edward, and Vernon L. Quinsey. 2001. The Criminal Recidivism Process. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge Univ. Press.


Determinate Sentence.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


habitual relapse into crime.
Collins Dictionary of Law © W.J. Stewart, 2006
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