The RAND Habitual Offender Project

A Summary of Research Findings to Date

by Peter W. Greenwood, Jan M. Chaiken, Joan R. Petersilia, Mark A. Peterson


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The characteristics of habitual offenders and their treatment within the criminal justice system are estimated from surveys of prison inmates and official records. Offense rates and probabilities of arrest are estimated for different types of offenders, categorized by age, prior record, race, and juvenile criminality. Motivations for crime, expected benefits from crime, self-identities, social stability, and drug use are analyzed in relation to criminal behavior. The effect of prior record on arrest dispositions is analyzed and the incapacitation effect of alternative sentencing policies is estimated. High-rate offenders are characterized by more extensive prior records, serious criminal activity as juveniles, and low social stability. They are motivated by a desire for hedonistic living rather than economic duress and possess a set of professional criminal attitudes that are consistent with their criminal behavior. However, the large proportion of low-rate offenders makes it impossible to significantly reduce crime rates through incapacitation alone without substantial increases in the prison population.

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