Should Repeat Offenders Be Punished More Severely for Their Crimes?

Date01 June 2019
Published date01 June 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2019, Vol. 30(5) 731 –747
© The Author(s) 2017
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0887403417701974
Should Repeat Offenders
Be Punished More Severely
for Their Crimes?
Stewart J. D’Alessio1 and Lisa Stolzenberg1
Debate persists as to the amount of influence criminal history should have in
determining the severity of imposed legal sanction for a criminal offense. One position
maintains that the punishment for repeat and first-time offenders convicted for the
same type of offense should be similar, whereas an alternative viewpoint argues
that the state should sanction repeat offenders more harshly. We contribute to this
discourse by investigating whether the amount of weight given to an offender’s prior
criminal record in sentencing affects the likelihood of repeat offending. Although
initial findings showed that a substantive negative bivariate relationship existed at
the county level between the weight-accorded prior criminal record in sentencing
and repeat offending, this association disappeared in a more sophisticated nonlinear
multilevel analysis. Our findings suggest that sanctioning repeat offenders more
harshly than first-time offenders for similar offenses has little effect on attenuating
repeat offending once other factors are controlled.
repeat offending, criminal record, sentencing
Americans began to question the criminal justice system’s ability to rehabilitate incar-
cerated offenders during the late 1960s and early 1970s because rehabilitation
programs had minimal effects on decreasing recidivism (Lipton, Martinson, & Wilks,
1975). In concert with reports purporting the failure of rehabilitation, studies further
1Florida International University, Miami, FL, USA
Corresponding Author:
Stewart J. D’Alessio, Department of Criminal Justice, Florida International University, 11200 SW 8th
Street, PCA 263B, Miami, FL 33199, USA.
701974CJPXXX10.1177/0887403417701974Criminal Justice Policy ReviewD’Alessio and Stolzenberg
732 Criminal Justice Policy Review 30(5)
demonstrated that indeterminate sentencing systems were inconsistent in the imposi-
tion of punitive sanctions (Frankel, 1973; Kapardis & Farrington, 1981) and that
repressive state control was a potential threat within such sentencing systems (Allen,
1981). Because the benefits of rehabilitation were seldom realized and the potential for
abuse was substantial, some advocated a return to the “just deserts” position on pun-
ishment (von Hirsch, 1976). This viewpoint caught the public’s attention and led to
increased political pressure to initiate reform.
Sentencing reform eventually manifested itself in the establishment of determinate
sentencing systems throughout the country. Determinate sentencing systems strive to
establish an equitable sentence for offenders convicted for similar type offenses by
limiting capricious judicial discretion (Wilkins, 1981). However, though the serious-
ness of the criminal offense plays the primary role in determining severity of sanction
within these types of sentencing systems, the criminal history of the convicted offender
is also salient. The offender’s prior criminal record is a valid sentencing criterion to
enhance the utilitarian aspect of punishment (von Hirsch, 1976).
However, controversy persists regarding the amount of weight that should be given
to an offender’s prior criminal record in determining severity of punitive sanction.
Two differing positions currently exist in the literature. The first viewpoint derived
primarily from retribution theory argues that both repeat and first-time offenders con-
victed for comparable offenses should be punished similarly because the social harm
of a criminal offense is the same without consideration to the prior record of the
offender (Banks, 2012). It is simply unjust to amplify the punishment for offenders
with a prior record because their previous criminal misconduct was already sanctioned
and because the culpability and blameworthiness of the defendant for the current crim-
inal offense has not increased from the individual committing the prior offense(s)
(Dubber, 1996; Singer, 1979). The harm to the victim and to society engendered by the
current offense is also not amplified because the offender committed one or more pre-
vious offenses. If society was to punish a repeat offender more harshly for his or her
current offense, the social harm caused by the crime would no longer be the overriding
purpose of punishment because a repeat offender might receive a harsher punishment
than a first-time offender who committed an identical crime or even a more serious
crime. Punishing repeat offenders more severely is also costly for society and does
little to reduce crime because many empirical studies fail to find a substantive inca-
pacitation effect (Raphael & Stoll, 2009).
It is also argued that repeat offenders do not need to be sentenced more severely than
first-time offenders because they are more apt to be apprehended and punished (Covey,
2011). Repeat offenders encounter a higher probability of detection by authorities
because fingerprints, DNA, photographs, and personal background information on pre-
viously arrested individuals, as well as criminal accomplices and modus operandi, are
maintained by police departments (Dana, 2001). It is also likely that many ex-offenders
have a higher proclivity of being arrested for their illegal activities because they are on
probation or parole and are being closely monitored by the state (Miller, 2014).
Research also finds that the likelihood of criminal conviction is substantially greater
for defendants possessing a prior criminal record (Laudan & Allen, 2011). Although

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT