Criminal Justice

Should the U.S. reform its criminal justice system to reduce recidivism?

The recidivism rate in the United States is 71 percent, leaving many wondering whether the current criminal justice system is sufficiently geared towards preventing reoffending.

Rise of the Issue

Although overall recidivism rates have decreased, according to the Department of Justice,  71 percent of people return to prison within 5 years after their release. With the highest incarceration rate in the world and such high recidivism numbers, people are left wondering what can be done to prevent reoffending.

Only five percent of Americans believe the criminal justice system is not in need of reform. Where Americans’ opinions on the matter differ, however, is on the extent and content of those changes. While some still rally behind the idea of being tough on crime, others believe reoffending is highly dependent upon circumstances and that reforms helping former inmates reintegrate society play a major role in whether they will reoffend.

Issue Timeline


President Reagan Announces War on Drugs

The policy started a steep increase in the prison population – it has more than tripled since the War on Drugs started.


Robert Martinson Publishes “What Works” Study

The sociologist’s study into prisoner rehabilitation programs essentially concluded in the “Nothing Works doctrine” – implying recidivism is inevitable and rehabilitation efforts are a waste of time and money.


Supreme Court Upholds Abandoning Rehabilitation in Prisons

In Mistretta v. United States, the Court upheld sentencing guidelines that remove rehabilitation as a serious consideration during sentencing.


New York Recidivism Hits 28 Year Low

Following a period of investments in programs aimed at smoothing inmates’ returns to their communities and parole monitoring, the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervisions reports their lowest recidivism rate since 1985.


Congress Passes Fair Chance Act

This legislation prohibits federal agencies and private companies that have contracts with the federal government from asking job applicants about criminal history before making a job offer.

Micro Issues


Driving Factor

The two sides differ on whether potential flaws in the criminal justice system are the driving factor behind recidivism, or whether it is the reoffenders’ sole responsibility.



Opponents believe the cost of reform is not worth the investment, while supporters argue the money saved housing less prisoners offsets the costs.



Supporters say people with lower socioeconomic backgrounds have less opportunities and are exposed to less favorable conditions and environments that encourage them to offend and reoffend at a higher rate, while opponents argue that one’s background does not determine one’s path, that committing a crime is a matter of choice, not circumstance.

Pro Arguments


People with untreated mental health issues are more likely to commit criminal offenses.

More than one in three people in prison has been diagnosed with a mental health issue, yet two thirds receive no treatment while incarcerated – being locked up often exacerbates mental illness, making people more likely to reoffend.


It is expensive to house a prisoner.

Housing a prisoner costs between $14,000 and $70,000 per year in taxpayer money. Investing in ways to keep people from going back can save costs in the long run.


Disclosure of criminal records deters employers from hiring past offenders.

There are still a number of states where employers are legally allowed to ask about a criminal record before making a job offer, which can affect the outcome of the application process.


User fees leave financial burdens on people when they are released from prison.

So-called “pay-to-stay” practices – where a person is charged $20 to $80 dollar per day they spend in prison – leave people with significant financial obligations once they are released, and people with financial challenges are more likely to reoffend.


People are less likely to reoffend if they participate in correctional education programs.

People who finish a high school equivalent, college degree or technical training while incarcerated are 43 percent less likely to end up back in prison.

Con Arguments


Reform costs money.

Any type of change costs taxpayer money – including investing in programs, retraining of staff and resources.


Strict punishments can deter others from offending.

A person considering committing a crime could be put off by the idea of strict sentencing and limited opportunities for the future.


Crime should not pay.

One goal of incarceration is to punish the offender for the crime they have committed, and helping a prisoner do better after they are released could be considered contrary to that principle.


It reduces a person’s own responsibility for improvement.

People who commit crimes have to take responsibility for their actions, and reforming the justice system takes away part of their incentive to put in work to improve their lives.


Imprisoning dangerous individuals protects the public.

If people who are inherently violent and could be a danger to the public are behind bars, they cannot harm the general public.