No. IV (1969)

Delinquency of persistent recidivists

Published 1969-12-23


  • crime,
  • recidivism,
  • imprisonment,
  • juvenile,
  • prison,
  • burglary,
  • theft,
  • alcoholism

How to Cite

Szelhaus, S. (1969). Delinquency of persistent recidivists. Archives of Criminology, (IV), 11–58.


1. The first part of the paper deals with the data from criminal records, pertaining to the delinquency of all thb 440 prisoners recidivists who within a two-year period entered the Warsaw Central Prison and who corresponded to the previously mentioned criteria. 42% out of the total of these recidivists were aged between 26 and 30, 58% - between 31 and 35, their average age being about 31.

Two-thirds lived in the Greater Warsaw area, 15% in small towns and settlements on the outskirts of Warsaw and 7%  in nearby villages. The average number of convictions after 17, amounted to 6,7 in regard to 440 recidivists. 40% were convicted 4-5 times, 35 - 6-7 times, 25% - 8 times and more.

As far as their stay in prison is concerned it can be stated, that 26%, of the recidivists stayed in prison only four times,44% - 5-6 times and 21% - 7 times and more.

Investigating the age of recidivists at which they were first brought to courts after 17, it was established that 20% were first tried at the age of 17, 18% at 18 and 29% between 19 and 20. Only 33%, of recidivists were first convicted when they were 21 or older. The beginning of delinquency with respect to persistent recidivists was however much earlier; results of detailed investigations relating to 220 out of those 440 recidivists revealed a considerable percentage of subjects commiting thefts when they were not older than 17 (these data are quoted below together with the results of investigations on the 220 recidivists).

Taking into account all the offences for which 440 recidivists were convicted and for the perpetration of which they were suspected (if they were remanded in custody awaiting trial), it can be asserted that 59%, out of 3,862 were offences against property of which thefts amount to as many as 75,6%.

Offences against person constitute 15% ot the total of offences. Most of them did not involve any serious consequences for the victim, - minor assaults constituting 43%, light bodily injury 24%, maltreating his wife and children by an alcoholic recidivist - 17%.

Assaults on public officers (nearly always committed in state of inebriety) constitute 12% of all the offences.

Out of 3,862 offences only 201 (5%) may be classified as serious acts of aggression, 148 of which were robberies. Although 150 (34%) recidivists committed these 201 serious acts of aggression, the overwhelming majority were convicted only once for the perpetration of that type of offence. Only 41 recidivists (9%) committed two or more offences connected with aggression; out of those 41 offenders 23 were convicted for the perpetration of robberies.

The 440 recidivists were divided into categories taking into account the kind of offences they committed; it appeared, that two-thirds of the recidivists were convicted for the perpetration of different offences. Only 24% were convicted for the perpetration of offences against property exclusively and only with 28% such offences distinctly outweighed any other offences. A category of recidivists (9%) convicted several times for offences against person exclusively and for insulting or attacking public officers (mostly policemen) is also worthy to be mentioned as well as such recidivists (16%) with whom these offences connected with aggression distinctly outweighed any other offences. By comparing the length of time during which, since they were 17, the persistent recidivists stayed in prison with that during which they were at liberty it has been established that about 30% of them stayed longer in prison than at liberty; nevertheless, about 32% stayed at liberty for at least three-fourths of the entire period after they were 17.

The rate of recidivism is reflected in the data relating to the average stay at liberty of 440 recidivists. Almost half of them (46%) stayed at liberty for a relatively short time - less than a year - (with 13% it did not exceed 6 months). In 40% of cases the average stay at liberty lasted from one year at least to less than two years and only with 14% it lasted at least two years.

Worthy of mentioning are also the following data on the longest stays at liberty, indicating that the rate of recidivism was formed in different ways. Only 12,5% of recidivists did not stay longer at liberty, between arrests, than 1 year while 23% stayed at liberty for 3-5 years at least once in their lifetime, counting from their release from prison until the new arrest. 10% stayed at least once at liberty for as long as 5 years.

2. The above data on delinquency of 440 recidivists, based exclusively on the information contained in registers, will be now completed by essential, additional data from judicial records, obtained during detailed investigations on 220 out of the 440 recidivists. In the beginning however, it is necessary to give the results of investigations concerning the origins of delinquency of recidivists when they were under 17. These results are based on data revealed in Juvenile Courts and on information received from the recidivists themselves and from their mothers.

If only such cases are taken into account on which objective information could have been obtained from Juvenile Courts (136), it appears, that 63% of recidivists were found guilty by the courts already under 17 or else confessed to repeated perpetration of thefts for which they had not been tried. On the other hand, basing on the incomplete data on all the 220 recidivists it was ascertained that at least 57% committed offences (thefts) as juveniles, 37% were found guilty by the courts and 20% committed unrevealed thefts. The delinquency of 25% of recidivists began already under 13 (this percentage is in fact undoubtedly higher).

Thus, the results obtained from investigations on persistent recidivists aged between 26 and 35 correspond to the results of previous investigations carried out on recidivists under 26, most of whom began committing offences also at the time of their juvenility On the basis of judicial records one may characterize the type of offences and the manner of committing them by the investigated 220 recidivists, after their 17th year.

As far as thefts are concerned the percentage of burglaries amounts to 40% while burglaries into shops and stores do not exceed 25% and into houses 23%. Among thefts perpetrated without burglaries a fair number constitute thefts committed in private houses, petty thefts in places of work and stealing from drunkards. Pocket thefts are only 5%.

The value of stolen property did not exceed 500 zł in 3% of the thefts and 2,000 zł in 61% of cases. Losses exceeding 10,000 zł were stated only in 10% of the total of thefts according to the material under investigation.

It should be emphasized that the analysis of judicial records and investigations of recidivists have shown that a large majority of them commit various types of thefts and cannot be classified as thieves with a definite specialization.

Even among recidivists who committed several burglaries only 5 could be classified as offenders committing a definite type of theft. The number of recidivists convicted for three or more burglaries is after all very small as it amounts to 29 (scarcely 16% out of the total of the investigated recidivists).

Investigating robberies committed by the recidivists it was first of all ascertained that only 23% were committed by sober offenders (besides, the victim was sober only in 45% of cases). 65% of robberies were committed in the streets (or in parks). Only 21% of robberies were planned and carefully prepared (robberies in houses of well-off persons). 32% constitute robberies in the streets, parks etc. on persons unknown to the offender. Victims of the remaining robberies were persons with whom offenders were drinking alcohol before (the victims were often previously convicted). It should be mentioned that 80% of victims did not sustain any bodily harm whatever.

Examining offences against person, committed by the investigated recidivists (90% of which constitute offences of no serious consequences to the victims) it can be asserted that almost all offenders acted under the influence of alcohol and that nearly half of the offences (46%) were committed by two persons at least.

Regarding motives of those offences, there were no motives at all in 35% of cases; hitting a passer-by in the street or beating him up was done by an inebriate offender for no reason. There were some insignificant reasons in the remaining cases but the reaction of the inebriate offender was distinctly inadequate to the circumstances of the incident.

Similarly, insulting or attacking the policemen was perpetrated by inebriate recidivists only. For the most part (47%) these offences were connected with arrests of the recidivists for some misdemeanours (i.e. drunkenness, disorderly behaviour), rarely for committing an offence (30%). In 23% of cases assaults on policemen were connected with establishing the identity of an inebriate recidivist in the street.

Already the analysis of the material contained in judicial records testifies to the fact that frequent alćoholization plays an important part in the etiology of the recidivism and that individłals abusing systematically of alcohol appear in large numbers among the recidivists.

3. An attempt to isolate definite categories of offenders from among 220 of investigated recidivists gave the following results:

A. 70% out of the total number of recidivists constitute those recidivists, whose offences against property (thefts as a rule) outweigh considerably any other offences they ever committed.

B. 29% of them constitute such recidivists who either did not commit any offences against property at all or committed them only exceptionally.

The first category of recidivists (A) comprising 152 prisoners could be divided into two separate groups of recidivists: A1 - a group of recidivists (93) who could be defined as professional offenders, since their chief or only source of maintenance were gains from offences, and A2 - a group of recidivists (59) who perpetrating almost exclusively offences against property, nevertheless have also other sources of stable income.

Group A1 - could be divided into two sub-groups (of a similar number of men) consisting of recidivists who commit serious thefts (and robberies) and recidivists who commit only petty thefts as a rule. Recidivist from both sub-groups classified as professional offenders, began committing offences as a rule already in their juvenility (over 80%). As many as 59% abused of alcohol in large quantities already under 21. The percentage of alcohol addicts amounts to 42% in the first sub-group. and up to 69%, in the second.

The highest percentage of recidivists (75%) who spent the larger part of their life in prison, appeals among recidivists classified as professional offenders perpetrating serious offences. They are characterized by a more rapid recidivism as compared with other groups of recidivists since their average stay at liberty between subsequent arrests did not exceed six months in 41% of cases and in 85% of cases lasted less than a year. Already these data testify to the fact that although these recidivists were classified as professional offenders since as a rule they had no other sources of maintenance than gains from offences they committed, they nevertheless differ substantially from genuine professional offenders, who usually stay at liberty for long periods of time. Besides, they differ substantially from genuine professional offenders also in that that there are no such recidivists among them (with a few exceptions) who would possess a definite specialization in stealing and would perpetrate a definite sort of theft (pocket thefts, burglaries etc.). Although this sub-group of recidivists were isolated because of the serious thefts they had perpetrated, nevertheless a majority of the thefts did not cause any considerable losses.

The second sub-group of recidivists, also defined by the term of professional offenders, in even smaller degree resembles the type of a genuine, professional offender. There is not even one recidivist among them who would commit thefts of a definite type; they commit petty thefts as a rule and some of them live on gambling, illegal trade or fencing. In contrast to the recidivists of the first subgroup (professional offenders committing serious thefts), the recidivists committing petty offences against property stayed at liberty for a much longer time - only 36% stayed in prison for more than half the period of time which elapsed since they were 17. The rate of their recidivism is much slower as only in one-fourth of cases the average stay at liberty between subsequent arrests did not exceed 6 months (in the former group as many as 41%).

Finally it should be mentioned that recidivists classified as professional offenders (from both sub-groups) committed, besides the offences against property, also offences against person and police when under the influence of alcohol. Offences against property amount to 75/" of the total of perpetrated offences in the first sub-group, while in the second they amount only to 59%

The A2 recidivists committing offences against property, which does not constitute their main source of maintenance, do not form a uniform population of offenders. There are recidivists among thęm who work more or lęss systematically and who committed thefts not connected with the abuse of alcohol, as well as recidivists (and they constitute a majority among the A2 recidivists) who commit petty thefts connected with their alcoholism (the percentage of alcohol addicts in this group is the highest and amounts to 80%). With regard to these recidivists the beginning of their abuse of alcohol preceded the beginning of perpetration of offences and a considerable percentage of thefts is committed in state of inebriety. 56% ot these recidivists began abusing of alcohol already under 17.

An altogether separate category of recidivists constitute offenders isolated as recidivists B (29% of the total of investigated recidivists) who committed offences mostly with the use of aggression (against total strangers as a rule), qualified as hooligan offences. Thefts, which they commit very rarely, constitute rather a secondary or even episodical phenomenon in their life, and are usually perpetrated occasionally, without any definite plans.

The category of recidivists B now under consideration, contains a small (23) group of recidivists who committed several thefts (3,3 per person); almost all (83%) began committing offences and abusing of alcohol as juveniles (81% of them abused of alcohol already under 19). In general, their way of life could be defined as parasitic. The percentage of alcohol addicts amounts tp to 73%.

Other recidivists belonging to the same category of offenders persistently committing aggressive offences (qualified as hooligan offences), against person or police, perpetrated almost exclusively offences of that sort (the average number of thefts per person amounting only to 1,5). They began committing offences much later (hardly 19% committed them as juveniles), and as many as 50% were first tried at 21 or later. The percentage of alcohol addicts amounts in this category to 50%. Almost all of them began abusing of alcohol early, only 32% started at 19 or later. This group contains recidivists with the smallest number of convictions - half of them were convicted only 4 - 5 times. Some 60% worked rather systematically.

In this way, persistent recidivists constitute a vęry varied population of offenders. Recidivists committing exclusively offences against property do not exceed 27%. It is also significant that as many as 25 recidivists, committing thefts exclusively, can be found in 4 different groups of recidivists. A typical occurrence is the perpetration, under the influence of alcohol, of offences against person, not involving any serious consequences for the injured.

Similarly, very significant is the fact that among the investigated persistent recidivists there are virtually no representatives of the type of a genuine, professional offender; most offences against property involved only trifle losses.

Considering the intensity and rapidity of thę recidivism one is confronted with following questions: why penalties inflicted on the persistent offenders have proved ineffective; did recidivism occur as rapidly after short penalties as after the long ones; was long imprisonment inflicted on thęm also at the beginning of their delinquency, etc.

This work could not dwęll at length on the above problems. We may merely content ourselves with quoting the following essential results of investigations concerning penalties inflicted on 400 recidivists.

An analysis of their stays at liberty after they had served all the sentences which amounted up to 6 months, from 7 to 11 months, from 1 year to less than 2 years, from 2 years to less than 3 years and from 3 years upwards - revealed, that a long prison term of at least 3 years has not proved more effective than a short one up to 6 months. Moreover, it appeared that long prison terms are followed by shorter, on the average, stays at liberty than the short ones.

Even in case whęn high penaities involving 2-3 year imprisonment were inflicted at the first, the second or the third trial, results were not any better than in case of short-term penalties.

The analysis of penalties inflicted on 44 recidivists, classified as professional offenders committing serious offences against property, revealed, that although nearly half of them were sentenced, at least once, to 5 years or more, the rate of their recidivism did not prove less rapid than after much shorter prison terms. It should be recalled, that only 25% of these recidivists stayed longer at liberty than in prison after they were aged 17.

Thus, the results of investigations confirm the experience of many other countries indicating, that with regard to those recidivists who were seriously maladjusted and anti-social since their juvenility, mere imprisonment which is usually resorted to, irrespective of its length, has proved as a rule disappointing.


  1. Szelhaus S., Kwestia skuteczności długoterminowych kar pozbawienia wolności, „Państwo i Prawo” 1968, nr 11, s. 756-767.