Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

POP Center Tools Analyzing and Responding to Repeat Offending Page 2

Approaches to Reducing Repeat Offending

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Given a problem where reoffending plays a major part, how can you then reduce it? You should consider the following approaches, each of which has succeeded in some contexts. None, however, provides a perfect solution, and you may decide on others in view of your problem analysis.

Incapacitation: Making It More Difficult to Reoffend

Incarceration is the most common method to incapacitate offenders, despite its risk of producing crime in prisons. There is evidence that selective incapacitation can be effective with individuals who you strongly believe will continue to commit crime and have resisted other approaches to reduce their criminal behavior.22 In the Netherlands, relatively long prison sentences imposed on prolific, drug-dependent offenders who are resistant to treatment have had a substantial effect on overall crime levels.23 There is also evidence that well-implemented Repeat Offender Programs can reduce crime through incapacitation.24

Notwithstanding these successes, broad incapacitation strategies for crime reduction have been found to face three significant difficulties.

The first is that imprisonment often occurs too late to have a significant incapacitation effect, and, for many inmates, extends far beyond the expected end of their criminal careers. Reviewing the evidence, one American scholar concludes that “(O)ur prisons are filled with people who would otherwise be retired—or at least semi-retired—offenders.”25

The second is that of identifying individuals who would be prolific offenders if they were not imprisoned (hence, individuals on whom to focus intense police attention). Here, systematically collecting reliable intelligence and carefully analyzing repeat offending patterns should help you decide who to target.†

† You can then evaluate your efforts by tracking for each day the number of your nominated prolific offenders who are at liberty alongside the number of relevant reported offenses to find out if crime drops when those you deem repeat offenders are in custody.

In practice, for the following reasons police nomination of prolific offenders has not consistently delivered expected crime prevention benefits:


  • It is difficult to identify active prolific offenders
  • Individual offenders’ high rates of offending fluctuate
  • Co-offending means removal of a particular prolific offender but does not lead to the prevention of offenses that would otherwise happen
  • Schemes have often been implemented poorly.26


The third difficulty is that heavy sentences may make it more difficult for ex-prisoners to lead law-abiding lives on release (for example, the stigma of imprisonment lowers paid employment opportunities and immersion in prison life supports criminal propensities and opportunities); hence the high recidivism levels observed. In regard to this, in the first instance it is up to the courts to consider the possible effects of incarceration when imposing sentences. Ultimately, however, you do have an interest as you will be faced with any increases in criminal activity resulting from inmates’ experiences and whether efforts to deal with your problem by targeting police work on repeat offenders will produce long-term net benefits.

Deterrence: Making It (Appear) More Risky to Reoffend

General deterrence refers to people’s unwillingness to commit crime because they fear being
punished if they are caught. Specific deterrence refers to current offenders’ reluctance to commit future crimes because they fear being caught and punished again.

If general deterrence worked perfectly we could have few punishments, each severe enough that only very small numbers of offenders would commit crime, and we would be relatively crime-free. This assumes a knowledgeable and risk-averse population of future-oriented, cost-benefit calculating offenders. In practice, however, many are unaware of the sanctions associated with different offenses. Moreover, those likely to offend tend not to be risk-averse. They are “present-oriented, reckless and overconfident.”27 The perceived possibility of future sanctions, even if severe, appears insufficient to deter many from crime. For those with short time horizons, speed and certainty of punishment would be needed, and speed and certainty are in some tension with severity. The heavier a penalty, the greater the effort to make sure it is warranted through protracted proceedings, making the punishment less certain and delaying its infliction.

In regard to specific deterrence, in the United States one study found that among inmates known to have committed burglaries the chance of being arrested for any one of them was around one in 30, for robbery one in 15, and for assault one in 10,28 and their risk of conviction and punishment, of course, even less. In England and Wales the chances of an offense leading to a sanction detection (taking account of those not reported) was less than one in 10 for burglary (9 percent), less than one in five for violence (18 percent), and one in 10 for robbery.29 These risk levels are clearly unlikely to deter those already immersed in criminal behavior.

There is some evidence that more prevention can be derived from deterrence than is conventionally achieved. Punishments must be known about in advance in order to deter the targeted behaviors. Research finds that publicity that is specific in terms of focus, crime, and geographical area is more effective than generic publicity.†

In summary, known repeat offenders may be deterred from committing further crime if they believe the risk of receiving prompt sanctions is high. If prolific offenders deem the risk of detection low and punishment uncertain, they are unlikely to be deterred from committing further crime. Therefore, if you are trying to address a problem by deterring prolific offenders, you need to work out how to persuade them that if they commit a crime they face an unacceptably high risk of a credible penalty that they will soon suffer.

The police in Dyfed Powys (covering part of Wales) traditionally have been able to claim a very high detection rate for household burglary (more than 50 percent). They believed the crimes were committed largely by repeat offenders, many of whom were traveling from Cardiff, in an adjacent police force area. The police painted on the ceilings of the holding cells large messages alerting those held to the risks they faced from offending. Those in the cells knew they had been caught and were already suffering an adverse consequence; the message was designed to prevent them from assigning this to bad luck and to be the take-home lesson they would learn and pass on to their associates. In addition, the Dyfed Powys police advertised prospective offenders’ risks in the areas around Cardiff where they were believed to live. The outcome effectiveness of these measures is unknown. They comprise, however, one example of an imaginative, targeted effort to deter suspected
repeat offenders by persuading them that they faced unacceptable risks of speedy adverse
consequences from committing the crimes of interest.

† See Response Guide No. 5, Crime Prevention Publicity Campaigns for further information, as well as Mazerolle (2003) and Bowers and Johnson (2005).

The well-known Boston Gun Project and its successors have used these same general principles; however, they adopted other complementary methods as well. In Boston, the problem was fatal use of guns by young gang members. Deterrence was targeted, and publicity was directed at the gangs. The short-term penalty was a concerted enforcement crackdown on all gang members that would follow immediately after a relevant offence and adversely affect their way of life. In an early incident, a gang member was sentenced to 19 years and 7 months in a federal prison without parole simply for carrying one handgun bullet. Police used this gang member’s situation to enhance the credibility of their deterrence messages, featuring him on a poster.30

Police addressed the problem of “squeegee men” in New York—aggressive beggars extorting money from drivers waiting at traffic lights in Manhattan—by making a full custodial arrest of anyone they saw engaging in it (rather than issuing a Desk Appearance Ticket that was usually largely ignored). The arrest involved a range of immediate adverse experiences: being handcuffed, taken to a lockup, and spending at least a night in jail. Moreover, the policy was publicized extensively. As it turned out, there were fewer than a 100 of these squeegee men, and the activity fell away soon after the policy was in place.31

These three examples have common threads: concentration on a specific problem, high levels of targeted publicity, and a focus on short-term experiences. They show that carefully directed, well-designed deterrence strategies can be a promising way of addressing persistent, repeat offending. Each has focused on substantially increasing the perceived chances of detection and the speed of sanction in relation to specific offenses and specific offender populations.32

Informal Social Control: Making It More Shameful or Less Excusable to Offend

Informal social control, by parents, partners, landlords, shop assistants, teachers, colleagues, friends, and religious leaders, is ubiquitous. It works by giving approval or disapproval, positive or negative sanctions, and cues such as smiles or scowls as a result of someone’s actions. It is most effective when applied by those we care for or who can make life easier or more difficult for us. It is most easily used when a person’s behavior is clearly visible to others. Police must decide when and how it is possible to ethically and effectively mobilize informal control over those immersed in criminal and antisocial behavior.

The following are some examples of activating informal social control to address particular problem behaviors and those involved in them:33

  • Parents controlling their children’s reckless driving
  • Apartment managers exercising control over disruptive tenants
  • Contractors controlling the disorderly behavior of their workers
  • University officials and alumni controlling fraternity and sorority members
  • Individuals controlling the driving of their intoxicated friends

Part of the Boston Gun Project’s successful strategy to prevent gang-related killings was to activate informal social control internally within gangs to stop firearms-related actions on the grounds they would provoke the wide-ranging attention of enforcement agencies.34 Here, control mechanisms that presumably already operated routinely within gangs (and which likely produced a range of criminal behavior within them) were cleverly channelled into inhibiting the gun-toting behavior that was targeted in the scheme.

Another method for activating informal social control over known offenders is restorative
conferences, during which offenders meet their victims and hear first-hand about the harm they inflicted. The track record of this method in reducing reoffending is mixed. As one extensive review of the quite voluminous literature concluded, “Studies that compare the effects of restorative justice with other interventions show that restorative justice may reduce crime, may have no effect or may increase offending.”35 That said, there do appear to be cases where restorative justice can reduce reoffending, such as when offenders are remorseful and when the conference concludes with an agreement for follow-up actions. Of course, restorative conferencing is an option only if all parties (including the offender and the victim) agree to participate.

When deciding to mobilize informal social control as a means of reducing repeat offending, you need to consider some ethical issues. First, the action taken by those applying informal social control may be excessive and counterproductive, especially if it involves violence such as the notorious knee-capping (shooting the knees) and beatings that were inflicted on those suspected of car theft during the troubles in Northern Ireland. Second, if families are asked to take informal action in dealing with one of its members, he or she may experience a breach in their privacy. Third, if informal controls are triggered on the basis of suspicion rather than proven criminal behavior individuals may be treated unjustly. You need, therefore, to think not only about the potential efficacy of activating informal social
controls but also about its proportionality to the repeat offending problem and the risks of any unintended harms that might result.

The Notification Selection Committee Process memo, shown above, and (offender) Notification Letter, shown below, are examples of the targeted enforcement strategies that have been employed by numerous police agencies to deal with repeat violent offenders. Source: Madison (Wisconsin) Police Department.

Treatment: Reducing the Disposition to Reoffend

Police do not generally deliver treatment to offenders, so the next two sections (on treatment in general and treatment for drug-dependency) are brief.

In the 1970s, reviews of research on offender education and rehabilitation came to the rather depressing conclusion that “nothing works.”36 The notion stuck, in spite of later qualifications to the initial findings37 and new treatment methods that appear to be effective. According to reviews of the research, cognitive-behavioral treatment programs for offenders, in particular, can be beneficial. Targeting the ways offenders think, cognitive-behavioral programs look at and aim to correct defective thinking, such as misinterpretation of social cues, unwarranted attachment of blame to others, and failure to think before acting. Well-implemented, high-dosage programs for repeat offenders that involve anger management and interpersonal problem solving appear to be particularly effective.38 Also, attention to turning points, at which individuals may become vulnerable to pro-crime
influences or open to counter-crime influences, may provide opportunities to influence conditions that are liable to create or maintain involvement in criminality.39 Most obviously, upon an offender’s release from prison, there is plenty that could steer him toward continued criminality but there is also an opportunity to mobilize more pro-social influences.

Although the police do not deliver treatment programs, they may have a role in supporting them. In particular, when repeat offenders are reluctant to accept treatment, the police may be able to help by leveraging them into doing so through frequent contact, as we shall see in the next section. They may also be able to mobilize treatment services when their absence leads to repeat problem behavior.

Drugs: Reducing the Need to Reoffend

Some repeat offending is a function of drug dependency, notably where the pharmacological effect precipitates violence or where money is needed to pay for the drug habit. There is some evidence that sustained treatment programs tailored to the specific needs of groups of offenders, who have different economic, social, and medical problems and different levels of dependence, can lead to reductions in repeat offending.40

Detoxification, followed by maintenance (e.g., with a substitute for the drug†), dose reduction, and relapse prevention support (e.g., using cognitive-behavioral therapy) is often required. One difficulty with such treatment programs is the high dropout rate. Treatment must be sustained to prevent those receiving it from reverting to drug-taking and associated crime habits.41

Coercion and compulsion have been found to contribute to continued participation in treatment.42 In The Tower POP Project in Blackpool, Lancashire, for example, police gave persistent offenders a choice: to access services that would enable them to live a crime- and drug-free life, or to be targeted proactively by the police if they refused these services and there was intelligence they were committing crime.43 Efforts were made to identify persistent offenders both in the community and in prison in the lead-up to release. Those identified were offered one-stop-shop drug and allied treatment services. The scheme was followed by a substantial drop in all crime (17 percent), with large reductions in burglary (45 percent) and theft from vehicles (34 percent). Attendance at drug treatment sessions exceeded 90 percent.

Overall, the evidence relating to commonly used types of interventions and to large-scale programs to address repeat offending finds that none has been consistently successful. No panacea has been found (and none likely will be). Equally, among suitable target populations there is evidence that positive outcomes have resulted, most especially when well-implemented and targeted on specific problems.

Mixed Strategies

Repeat offending may be associated, as it often is, with other forms of crime concentration: by location, victim, or target. Here, mixed strategies may be developed. See Mixed Strategies Including Reduction of Repeat Offending below for examples where attention to repeat offending has been one element of a wider approach.

† A Campbell collaboration review of drug substitution tactics concluded that “Heroin maintenance has been found to significantly reduce criminal involvement among treated subjects, and it is more effective in crime reduction than methadone maintenance. Methadone maintenance greatly reduces criminal involvement, but apparently not significantly more so than other interventions.” (Egli et al. 2009) Hence there are crime reduction benefits in this as part of the longer-term treatment of prolific
drug-dependent offenders.

Mixed Strategies Including Reduction of Repeat Offending

Organized shoplifting (Goldstein 03/09: Pikes Peak Retail Security, Colorado Springs)
Loosely organized shop thieves (repeat offenders) target merchants (repeat victims) in a shopping mall (hot spot), stealing readily accessible products that can be resold (hot products).

The police mobilized improved preventive merchant activity (including situational measures), partly by creating an E-groups Internet site through which merchants could communicate information about active offenders operating in the mall to one another and to the police. The police were also able to use the information provided to identify and target organized crime groups to disrupt their activity, notably by arresting key members (incapacitation).

Prostitution (Goldstein 01/08, Buffalo, NY)
Drug-abusing prostitutes (high repeat offenders and also repeat victims of violence) are active in an area of Buffalo (the hot spot). Here, residents feel threatened (repeat victims) and businesses lose trade (repeat victims) by johns (low repeat offenders), who often conclude their transactions in very specific locations (hot dots). A mixed strategy targeted a) the johns, who were open to the prospect of informal social control through shaming (sent to a john school for treatment on first arrest as a condition for non-prosecution, where they paid a fee to cover costs and contribute to services for prostitutes); b) the prostitutes, who were offered social services to help them exit prostitution and cease drug habits (treatment), but were incarcerated for significant periods if they persistently solicited (incapacitation); c) the hot dots, where Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) principles were used to make them less suitable for offenses; and d) the drug houses, which attracted the prostitutes to the neighborhood.

Burglary (Goldstein 08/03, District 14, Boston)
A high proportion of burglaries were repeat incidents (repeat victimization) in particular parts of a student neighborhood (hot spots), which were associated with student movement patterns (producing hot times) and mostly committed by 12 career criminals (repeat offenders). 

Police used a mixed strategy that involved efforts to mobilize landlords to better target harden their properties (using the Inspection Services Department to remind them of their statutory responsibilities), to provide security tips to residents, to target patrol at hot times and at hot spots, and to control the repeat offenders (drawing on a seldom-used commonwealth statute that allowed known offenders to be qualified as “common and notorious thieves,” which carried a possible prison term of 20 years and was used to try to deter the habitual offenders). 

Domestic abuse (Goldstein 02/09; Charlotte-Mecklenburg Baker One Domestic Violence)
Domestic abuse is a classic repeat offender/repeat victim problem where the offenses often occur at the same address. Incidents can grow in severity and sometimes result in homicide. The incidents that come to police attention are not all directly related to domestic violence but signify a history of relationship problems. In Baker One, officers took cases where three calls to an address had been made and then looked in detail at as many of the previous calls related to the offender and victim as they could. This often meant looking at incidents across a wide geographical area Case-by-case decisions were made on responses. Measures on the response menu included a) treatment to improve an abusive relationship; b) help to move on from an abusive relationship; c) intensified surveillance to ensure offenders know they are being watched and thereby deter them; d) checks on the victims’ welfare, and e) zero tolerance for repeat offenders, often using leverage available on those who already had a criminal record.

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