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A critical review of "recidivism" : its implications in social policy concerning the treatment of offenders Fornataro, John Valdo

Abstract

The treatment of the offender has assumed increasing importance in Canada, as well as in other countries of the Western hemisphere, both because of the statistical rise in the incidence of law violations and because of persistent expressions of dissatisfaction over the results of current penal practices. The recidivistic offender has tended to become the focal point of attention. He symbolizes the failure of official actions to terminate the criminal career, and his persistence in law violation has more recently become a matter of economic interest. At the same time, the impression has become general that the recidivist is likely to be especially dangerous to the community. Consequently, a substantial amount of policy and practice has been developed with special reference to the recidivist. This study is concerned to inquire into the soundness of the rationale which adopts recidivism as an index of criminal personality, a criterion for evaluating specific institutional dispositions, and as a valid basis for developing social policy with reference to the treatment of a very substantial proportion of offenders. Prevailing policies concerning the recidivist have the effect of adding very considerably to the gravity and the duration of the penalties and limitations placed upon the offender. In some instances, the record of recidivism makes it possible for a person to be declared an "habitual criminal", thus making him liable to a sentence which is indeterminate. Despite his possible eligibility for parole, the "habitual criminal" is under a virtual life sentence. Professional disciplines having an interest in the well-being of the individual and of the consequence of official sanctions imposed upon deviants should recognize in the phenomena associated with the disposition of recidivists many critical issues, social, clinical, economic and ethical. The study has been predominantly focussed upon the adult recidivist in Canada, although experience and observations of a relevant nature have been derived from other jurisdictions. This is not a "case study" but is based upon an examination of the main literature in the field of criminology and of penology. Both theoretical and empirically derived sources have been consulted. In consequence of this examination the inescapable conclusion is that recidivism, essentially a statistical concept, should be treated as totally irrelevant to the formulation of social policy. Moreover, there are strong indications that much official behaviour in the treatment of the offender contributes directly and powerfully to recidivistic patterns. Present policy appears to owe much to the unreasoned emotions felt concerning the offender. With so much at stake, it becomes increasingly important that social policy must rest upon rational grounds.

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