From Volume 87, Number 3 (March 2014)
What causes crime and why crime rates vary over time and place—these are vast questions that dominate the careers of criminologists. The related question of what we can expect government agencies to do about crime—that is, what we can hold government responsible for—occupies much of our civic discourse. My subject here is deceptively more modest: how we identify and address one major problem that government agencies, most obviously criminal justice agencies are supposed to resolve: the elusive phenomenon called recidivism. In this Essay I will undertake some admittedly impressionist reflections on recidivism. I will suggest that because of the power and salience of the term in our discourse, we need to be more self-critical in deploying it. Turning to more pragmatic concerns of criminal justice, I will review how variable and contingent are the formal definitions of measures of recidivism, and I will address the need for sensibly self-critical stipulations of the meaning of the term in order to make the most of any pragmatic use of the term feasible. But first, to suggest what a multimeaning term recidivism is and what a complex phenomenon it may signify, I beg indulgence for a quick narrative of developments in California.