1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Recidivism

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RECIDIVISM (from Fr. récidiver, to relapse and fall again into the same fault, or repeat the same offence as one committed before), a modern expression for “habitual crime.” The recidivist is now universally known to exist in all civilized countries as one who has adopted wrong-doing and law-breaking as a profession. His persistency is ceaseless and inextinguishable by the ordinary methods of combating crime. Penal justice as generally exercised is unavailing, and is little better than an automatic machine which draws in a vast number within its wheels and casts them out again practically unchanged in character to qualify again for the ineffective treatment. This dangerous contingent is for ever on the move, into prison and out of it and in again; a large proportion of it, the criminal residuum, the very essence of the criminality of a country, resists all processes devised for its regeneration and cure. Nothing will mend it; neither severity nor kindness, neither the most irksome restraints nor the philanthropic methods of moral and educational persuasion. This failure has encouraged some ardent reformers to recommend the system of indefinite imprisonment or the indeterminate sentence, by which the enemy once caught is kept perpetually or for a lengthy period, and thus rendered innocuous. Habitual offenders, it is argued, should be detained as hostages until they are willing to lay down their arms and consent to make no further attempt to attack or injure society. The theory is sound and has been adopted in part in several countries, especially in the United States.

It was not until 1909 that the system of preventive detention was put into operation in the United Kingdom, when, by the Prevention of Crime Act 1908, power was given to the courts to pass on habitual criminals a sentence of preventive detention in addition to one of penal servitude. This further period may range within limits of from five to ten years, according to the discretion of the court. The English system is hardly more than tentative at present; the machinery is admittedly capable of improvement. The charge of being an habitual criminal has to be inserted in the indictment on which the offender is to be tried, and this cannot be done without the consent of the director of public prosecutions and after certain notice has been given to the officer of the court trying the prisoner and to the offender himself. The decision to charge a prisoner with being an habitual criminal has hitherto rested on the local police authorities, and it has been felt that a more even and a more general application of such a drastic method of treatment would result if the decision were transferred to one authority, and some such reform was foreshadowed by the Home Secretary in a speech in the House of Commons on prison reform on the 20th of July 1910.