Why Do Felons Become Repeat Offenders?

The vast majority of felons being released from prison have the best intentions at heart. They plan to get a job, secure a place to live, and reconnect with important individuals in their lives. However, many quickly discover the difficulty of being a felon in the modern age. The advent of the internet has often made the details of individuals’ crimes public domain. Because of this, felons have difficulty assimilating with the general population. In fact, over 67 percent of felons recently released from prison return within three years[1]. This is in stark contrast to the overall percentage of felons, about 8 percent, relative to the general population[2].

What is the reason for this disproportionate recidivism? Why do felons appear to be so predisposed to returning to prison? The answer lies largely in the overt labeling of felons as criminals. This labeling is most present in the job market and governmental programs.

The Job Market For Felons

Employers often view hiring felons as taking a risk. The stigma surrounding felons, even nonviolent offenders, runs deep in the corporate world. Employers who do hire felons are often doing so simply for tax incentives. Nonetheless, even with these incentives in place, employers are hesitant to take this perceived risk.

Felons often cite their inability to obtain gainful employment as a reason for their return to crime. About 9 out of 10 employers conduct a pre-employment background check in the selection process. Because of this, it is unlikely that a felony will not be realized by a potential employer[3].  Even if an individual didn’t serve prison time for a felony, background checks are largely indiscriminate to this fact.

Assume that an employer has two equally qualified candidates for a position. One candidate has a felony while the other does not. In this case, the employer likely will choose the candidate who does not have a criminal record. Because of this fact, felons often find themselves having to drastically exceed the qualifications for a position if they even want to be considered. This is especially difficult if a felon has spent a substantial amount of time incarcerated in a prison. A lack of resources and programs in prison make gaining qualifications difficult.

Prison Education Programs

Many individuals in prison opt to better themselves during their time behind bars. This is because 95 percent of prisoners currently incarcerated will eventually be released from prison, and they want to be prepared for life outside of prison walls[4].  However, it isn’t easy for prisoners to get an education. These programs are becoming increasingly more common in United States prison but are still fairly rare. This is largely due to a 1994 bill that disallows incarcerated individuals from receiving federal financial aid[5]. This makes it extremely difficult for felons to obtain the funding necessary to pay for a college education. They must depend on, and petition for, state and local funding to obtain their education. Many individuals are hesitant to contribute to funding felons’ education. As a result, funding is often hard to come by.

In addition, many felons come from households that cannot afford to financially support them. This lack of financial support is often what leads individuals to commit crimes in the first place. Resultantly, many individuals leave prison without anything that they’re able to put on a resume. Add that to the “felon” label that they now have, and it makes it extremely difficult for them to compete with non-felons in the job market.

Governmental Finance Restrictions

This reluctance to contributing to felons’ wellbeing transcends the walls of prison. Many government programs limit or entirely bar felons from receiving financial support. There are currently 10 states that disallow the dispersing of funds to certain types of felons[6]. This, paired with the difficulty of obtaining a job, can lead a felon to the type of activity that landed them in prison in the first place. There are even 3 states that disallow the dispersing of food stamps to certain felons[7].  These restrictions are lifetime bans, meaning a felon will never be able to apply for food stamps unless the law is reversed[8].

91 percent of felons in a situation described as “food insecure”, meaning that they don’t have assured access to full meals each day[9]. If an individual must choose between starving and committing a crime, they will likely choose the option that allows them to live. These individuals can find themselves malnourished and desperate for food. In this situation, it’s difficult to have faith that there is light at the end of the tunnel by living a law-abiding life.

Other Government Aid Restrictions

In addition to cash and food-funding limitations set by the government, there are often public housing restrictions for felons. These restrictions make it difficult or impossible for individuals to gain access to government subsidized housing[10]. This subsidized housing is frequently the only option for felons returning from prison to find affordable housing. With this option eliminated, affordable housing for felons is scarce. This can often lead to homelessness, which is one of the major causes for recidivism.

In this circumstance, Felons will likely continue to seek means outside of the law to obtain the resources necessary to live. This is unless there is a change in the laws that mandate government assistance programs. Restriction of governmental programs can cause a feeling of desperation in felons looking to house and feed themselves and their family. This mindset is dangerous for an individual looking to stay on the right side of the law.

Societal Restrictions

Outside of governmental assistance, felons are subject to restriction on basic societal rights and programs within the United States. Take the laws governing international travel and parental rights for felons. These laws govern a felon’s ability to travel outside of the United States and have access to their children.

Individuals with families, both within and outside of the United States, find themselves unable to see their loved ones because of these restrictions. This can lead to a sense of isolation and societal disconnect. Felons in this position often feel disenfranchised from the general population. This further solidifies their identity as a criminal of the law. This identity is not conducive to the betterment of an individual. It can also lead a felon to once again go astray from the law.


Because of the biases and restrictions imposed on felons, they often feel that they are never done serving their time. Employers’ blatant opposition to hiring felons is a major roadblock in the life of a felon looking abide by the law and earn an honest living. Add to this the restrictions placed on felons by the government and it would appear that felons are set up for failure.

Without a major change in legislature and societal acceptance, felons will continue to return to prison at vastly disproportional rates than the general population.

[1] https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=4986

[2] https://news.uga.edu/total-us-population-with-felony-convictions/

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/storyline/wp/2015/01/22/millions-of-ex-cons-still-cant-get-jobs-heres-how-the-white-house-could-help-fix-that/

[4] https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/11/06/colleges-push-more-resources-support-prison-education-programs

[5] https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/11/06/colleges-push-more-resources-support-prison-education-programs

[6] https://www.governing.com/topics/health-human-services/gov-welfare-felons-states-federal-ban-tanf-snap-pennsylvania.html

[7] https://www.governing.com/topics/health-human-services/gov-welfare-felons-states-federal-ban-tanf-snap-pennsylvania.html

[8] https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2018/06/20/621391895/in-some-states-drug-felons-still-face-lifetime-ban-on-snap-benefits

[9] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23514079

[10] https://www.hrw.org/report/2004/11/18/no-second-chance/people-criminal-records-denied-access-public-housing

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