Date: May 20, 2019
Category: Law Essay
Recidivism of a Neoclassical Criminal

Controlling crime is an issue that attracts the attention of both scholars and authorities. For a long time, state officials have responded to the frustration of the public because of rising rates of crime by elevating incarceration in the fight against crime. There are suggestions that nothing works in the rehabilitation of jailed persons, and policymakers indicate that high rates of repeat offenses remain prevalent. Thus, committing people to jail terms was seen as the best approach to control criminal behavior. However, Brotherton (2013) observed that developments in the recent past have led to major shifts in the mindsets of people in regard to the issue. According to White (2008), emerging research supported the view that people can reform to lead constructive lives free from crime engagement. The Second Chance Act in 2008 by Congress has enacted in response to the realization that rehabilitation works despite challenges. Thus, it is not surprising that in the current times, recidivism reduction one of the cornerstones of both states and local policies on crime. The current paper applies the neoclassical theory in reviewing how prison contributes to the hardening of criminals.

Prisons and Hardening of Criminals

Prison is viewed as a training ground for criminals. While in prison, offenders learn from the more experienced ones on how to commit crimes to evade detection. Additionally, criminals acquire knowledge of criminality and internalize norms that characterize the antisocial nature of prisoners. Despite the presence of knowledge that individuals who spend more time in prison tend to re-offend, the extent, to which such behavior is acquired or enhanced while in prison, remains difficult to confirm. However, many studies have shown that grouping high and low-risk offenders are counterproductive as the former intoxicate the latter with negative ideas. In practice, attempts are made to put small and hardcore criminals together in the hope that they will learn the good ideals from the former. Prisoners who are not radical have never managed to prevail on the extremists found in prisons. Thus, attempts to bring together different groups should be discouraged.

Within prisons, deviant bonds seem to strengthen, which leads to increased tendencies of further offenses. The declining level of closeness within families and communities has also contributed to the state of affairs. As previous studies have demonstrated, the willingness of a family to receive back, an ex-convict is a contributing factor to the extent, to which individual reforms upon the conclusion of their jail terms. The weakened family and societal setup dampen the internal drive to observe the law and diminishes the ability of an ex-convict to secure employment. It is observed that family connections play an important role in a person’s attempt to secure a job after incarceration. However, when an individual is serving a jail term, issues such as geographical distance, logistical considerations, and security restrictions emerge to undermine the probability of seeking and securing work for victims. In such a way, inmates encounter many problems when they are released in their attempts to reintegrate back into society. In such a scenario, ex-convicts are left exposed, and more likely to re-engage in crime. Thus, the proposition that prisons harden criminals is valid.

The effects of staying in prison remain well documented. This is affirmed by the declarations of the supreme court of the united states, in the ruling of the case of Johnson v. California, 543 U.S. 499, 515 (2005), which remarked that prisons were dangerous places. Residing in perilous areas, such as in correctional facilities, exposes people to many hazards. For instance, violence against colleagues is a routine aspect for prisoners. The danger is posed not only by fellow prisoners but also by guards. Such violence is criminal unless administered for purposes of security. In any case, the brutality that characterizes prisons is critical in their hardening.

The brutality witnessed in jails or prisons contributes to the destruction of inmates’ sense of humanity. Alternatively, the behavior hardens the criminal by dissuading him/her from obeying state and its authority. Thus, at the end of one’s jail term, the willingness to conform is destroyed. Similarly, the violence meted out by fellow inmates contributes towards the unwillingness to follow the law. Logically, one has no basis for one to follow a system that fails to accord him/her protection. When one’s sense of self-worth has been lost, the motivation to obey or fear it is also absent. Additionally, the constant use of force within the prison environment is a contributory factor itself as it leads to the hardening of criminals. For newcomers into jails, the tendency to associate with gangs seems a good idea because this guarantees them protection. In the process, they also learn and become hardcore criminals. The fact that inmates victimize fellow inmates is disturbing given that it entails brutalizing them, which is an engagement that leads to hardening of the criminals. The above or related activities are known to interfere with peoples’ reasoning leading to the development of a culture of violence and hostility as the maladjusted inmates try to cope. Thus, at the point of release, many ex-convicts are already negatively affected to fit into society.

Overcrowding is among the numerous problems that people in prison have to contend with. One of the adverse effects of the issue is inadequate classification, monitoring, and management of prisoners. It is recognized that inmates encounter many problems ranging from psychological to mental ones. Disturbed prisoners are a threat to the rest of the inmates. Therefore, there is a need to take appropriate action to avoid a scenario where people are mixed, without proper sorting. Despite the above-mentioned facts, jails and prisons do not address the issue well because of the problem of overcrowding. For instance, a correlation existed between prison density and assault/infraction rates. Additionally, poorly regulated and overcrowded correctional facilities are subject to high rates of rape and sex-related violence. Such adverse effects are exacerbated by the presence of young offenders as they demonstrate an increased propensity to sensitivity and volatility. Overcrowding implies that resource availability to inmates is stretched. Such a state increases frustrations, uncertainty as well as conflict with others. In cases where the resources border on education or training opportunities, an inmate’s employability is impacted. When the released persons are unable to secure work, they are likely to engage in post-incarceration crimes. Thus, overcrowding is connected to recidivism. Of note is that overcrowding contributes to crime commission within and outside the prison. However, even in the absence of overcrowding, inmates still committed crimes because the correctional facilities failed to provide enough work to engage the inmates.

Having largely focused on the role of the environment in accelerating recidivism, traversing the concept of solitary confinement might be necessary to understand individual dynamics. Sometimes, high-risk offenders who cause in-prison violations are segregated from the rest. Prisoners are sent to such facilities for certain hours in a day. Although such attempts might be justified in certain circumstances, their effects on the victims are severe. Solitary confinement predisposes individuals to high levels of stress, which is a state that might lead to the impairment of a prisoner’s mental functioning. Such a development is likely to create a hardened criminal who is willing to commit new crimes within or outside the correctional facilities. In practice, inmates who end up in solitary confinement have psychological disorders that contribute to their behavior. The intensive incarceration is likely to exacerbate the problem, the very issue that might have led the prisoner to commit a crime resulting in his/ her incarceration. In this regard, the application of the neoclassical theory of criminology would be critical given that the person in charge of the facilities can decide based on the circumstances to let extreme prisoners go through alternative processes. Based on the theory, the judge cannot be justified to convict and sentence a psychologically challenged individual to a jail term. This is likely to cause a problem given that in such a case, leaving a mentally disturbed person free might create additional problems. A case of this nature is controversial although the right approach would involve imprisoning the victim and sending him/her to solitary confinement. Nevertheless, criminal behavior would have been hardened instead of being lessened.

Understanding Recidivism through the Neoclassical Theory

A number of theories have emerged in a bid to explain repeat offending or recidivism. In an ideal scenario, incarceration is expected to mold individuals into reformed persons. However, the efforts of prisons to achieve the goal have often yielded mixed results, with many outcomes indicating that criminals who go through the justice system end up being worse criminals.

The development of the neoclassical theory was largely a reaction to shortcomings of the positivist and classical schools of thought. In particular, the school of thought emerged shortly after the French Revolution to fill the gaps left by the above-mentioned theories. Under the French Code enacted in 1789, Baccaria principles were applied in the determination of cases. In this regard, the law defined crimes and penalties involved. However, the case of varying circumstances was never factored in when arriving at the judgment. The implication was that repeat offenders received the same punishment as first-time offenders. Similarly, uniformity applied to children as adults, and the sane or insane. In essence, intervening/mitigating conditions were a non-issue. The problem of applying the same sentences to any person irrespective of whether they are repeat offenders or first-time offenders would be unfair not only because they would fail to exact restraint but because the judges would have overlooked the fact that a repeat offense is more grave than a first-time offense.

Treating people equally despite the presence of differences was termed an affront on justice and fairness. There is a difference between determinism and total free will. Further, Seiter observed that totally free will was unattainable. Instead, the author indicated that age, sex, economic and social factors were major factors that influenced the actions of people. Based on this account, Schmalleger (2014) held that such factors have a bearing on an individual’s conduct as postulated by the Neoclassical Theory. Therefore, it would appear that the decision by prisons to dole severe punishment to repeat offenders is justifiable, albeit, and based on the theory. However, accounting for other circumstances, such as mental state, which leads to the commission of offenses, might be difficult owing to the overall harm that might emerge if the principle of circumstances is applied. However, such concerns are ameliorated by the allowance of discretionary powers to judges. Through authority, decision-makers exercise their wisdom to take appropriate measures.

The consideration of the impersonal features was a critical step in the dispensation of justice given that judges were not allowed the discretion to assess cases by interrogating the surrounding circumstances of commission or omissions deserving legal review. Thus, judges would be allowed to evaluate issues bordering on age, mental status, and other environmental factors before arriving at a judgment. Revisions and adjustments to account for circumstances led to the emergence of the neoclassical school.

Biological theories were disputable in reference to the claim of their role in influencing behavior but observed that people tended to copy others. Out of such conduct, three sets of laws emerged. Firstly, individuals having intimate associations were likely to ape each other. In the second place, young people were more inclined towards replicating what they saw their seniors do, and finally, the act of copying followed the replacement of previously held ways of conduct. Understood differently, new acts replace the old ones. The biological theory would seem better placed at explaining why criminals harden while at the prison. Simply understood, when a criminal gets to jail, he/she gets an opportunity to learn from hardcore criminals leading to his/her transitioning from a simple to a sophisticated criminal.

The neoclassical school’s important role in criminology is the introduction of mitigating factors when reviewing cases. One of the most relevant neoclassical theories is the deterrence theory, which is divided into general and specific strands. The deterrence theory supports the position that when issuing sentences, the objective is to discourage repeat offenses or potential offenders from engaging in the same mistake. In other words, the main aim is to prevent the occurrence of the issue being addressed. When the goal is to prevent others from engaging in a crime that a certain individual has done, general deterrence is said to have been applied. On the other hand, when the intention is to bar a certain offender from repeating the same mistake is invoked, specific deterrence is in the application.

The reactance theory has also been used to understand the behavior of criminals. Individuals perceive efforts to control them as a threat to their personal freedom and react accordingly (consciously or unconsciously). Such persons attempt to re-establish the threatened freedom by engaging in the same behavior that has put them in problems. The conduct is mostly seen among individuals who value their freedom highly. It is not surprising that those persons who are already at risk of committing crimes are also the ones who are most likely to engage in them. Such behavior is heightened by incarceration implying that imprisoning wrongdoers is counter-productive.

Overcoming Recidivism

In order to address the recidivism problem, a number of principles must be observed. Among them, the first one is to understand the person(s) to target. In particular, targeting persons who are at a higher risk is important if the concern is to be addressed appropriately. In this regard, correctional facilities need to focus more on prisoners/offenders who are at a higher risk of engaging in repeat offenses. It is noted that the risk relates to the group of persons who are more likely to recidivate. Such a method reduces wastage, which is witnessed when intervention or program is rolled without the identification of the target group. Secondly, low-risk offenders need to be placed in programs that focus on disrupting their prosocial arrangements. Understood differently, the factors that expose the offenders to risk are interjected. Such might include employment, family, school, and others. In the absence of such attributes, chances of being low-risk are minimal.

The second principle rests on need. In this regard, the main concern is to identify what to target or the criminogenic attributes, which have a high association with criminal behavior. Under the principle, programs are expected to focus on crime-based needs, such as substance abuse, lack of self-control, peer pressure and related factors. Focusing on the above aspects is integral for reducing recidivism.

In the third place, the treatment principle is applicable. The tenet focuses on ways used by correctional facilities to identify and focus on the needs of offenders. Based on the principle, the behavioral approach is the best when seeking effectiveness in reducing recidivism. Behavioral interventions draw on a number of attributes that make them more productive. In the first place, the approach gravitates on the prevailing circumstances and the existing risk factors that are linked to the conduct of the offender. Secondly, the attributes of the method are action-oriented as they demand that victims engage in activities based on the difficulties encountered instead of talking about them. It is also alleged that the attributes concentrate on teaching offenders new pro-social skills, with a view to replacing antisocial traits such as cheating, stealing and lying while reinforcing positive ones. Structured social learning interventions involve teaching of new skills, attitudes and behaviors, and their reinforcement. Family-based interventions are also used given their effectiveness in restoring confidence among victims of recidivism. Trainers focus on modeling desirable behavior while at the same time, discouraging unacceptable conduct. Cognitive programs would focus on aspects such as substance abuse, peer pressure, attitude formation, and anger management. One main characteristic of the interventions is the high level of structuring that they employ. Behavior reversal and modeling are the primary methods applied when the interventions are used. However, non-behavioral approaches are also available for individuals seeking to redress recidivism. The latter method entails spreading knowledge about alcohol and drug abuse, disabusing fears and addressing emotional problems, an extension of therapeutic sessions and instituting self-help mechanisms. Despite the usefulness of the methods, the long-term effectiveness of the approaches remains unverified.

In other considerations, such as concentrating on responsiveness factors, it is critical to enhancing the influence of correctional facilities in reducing recidivism. In this regard, the focus is laid on improving motivation or doing away with barriers that hinder the participation of individuals in intervention measures.


Without a doubt, recidivism is a challenge that baffles the criminal justice system and the academic fraternity. In practice, the essence of incarceration is to serve as a deterrent such that individuals do not repeat committing offenses or learn from others who have already been punished. However, in some cases, recidivism ensues in the observation that prisons might be failing in their correctional role by contributing to the hardening of criminals instead of reforming them. Based on the neoclassical school of thought, it is necessary to pay attention to mitigating factors when assessing cases. A rise in the levels of recidivism demonstrates that the neoclassical theory, which supports deterrence theory, is failing. Understood differently, the implication is that prisons are not discouraging repeat offenses. Behind this backdrop, it is arguable that the use of incarceration to deter criminals as anticipated in the neoclassical theory has failed.