No. X (1983)

Crime among multi-recidivists, and penal policy towards them

Andrzej Siemaszko
Institute of Crime Problems

Published 1983-06-04


  • recidivist,
  • application of penalties,
  • criminal policy,
  • criminality,
  • prison

How to Cite

Siemaszko, A. (1983). Crime among multi-recidivists, and penal policy towards them. Archives of Criminology, (X), 23–54.


         In Poland in recent  years, the number of people sentenced each year in what is know as „special multiple recidivism (Art.60 § 2) has been in the order of 1,500-1,700. This paragfaph of the Penal Code, which applies to offences against property and to acts of hooliganism, provides for a drastic stepping-up of penal Sanctions. Under the Penal Code, the minimum sentence for multi-recidivists in this category is two years' imprisonment, unless there are mitigating circumstances. Hence it may be concluded that the legislation regards this group of effenders as  constituting a specially serious danger to law and order. The sudy described below was designed to elucidate if that is really the case.

      The subjects in this study were all multi-recidivists sentenced under this paragraph by the courts in five voivodships of Poland, in the years  1975 and 1976. Over  1,700 criminal cases brought against 131 persons were analysed. For technical reasoni, it was not possible to make a random sample. Nevertheless, if we take into consideration the fact that the subjects constituted 10%  of all multi-recidivists  convicted of special multiple recidivism within this period, as well as the fact that the main social and demographic data and the kinds of crimes committed by the multi-recidivists in our group are almost identical to such data in other investigations based on random samples, we can take it that the sample used in our study may be considered as representative of all the offenders convicted of  crimes in what is known as „specual multiple recidivism”.

      The methods used was to analyse the court records and the data given in the register of convicted persons and in the register of prisoners. Efforfs were made to collect information from the records on all crimes committed by the recidivists in our group, right from the beginning of their criminal career.

     The study fell into the following headings: 1) basic socio-demographic data, 2) crime record,         3) structure of offences committed, 4) effectiveness of penal measures used, 5) the penal policy adopted towards our subjects in different periods. Finally, conclusions drawn from the present study, as well asfrom other studies of multi-recidivism are presented.

     Some basic characteristics of this group are as follows: The mean age of the subjects was 40, and their mean age at the time of the first conviction: 21. The percentage of multi-recidivists who began their criminal carrer being aged 25 and over was higher in this group than in other studies.

     The educational level of the men in this group was much lower than that of the male manual workers employed in the public economy. Nearly  4O% of the subjects had no trade, and among those who did work, most of their jobs consisted of the simplest manual work not requiring any qualifications. Yet it was found that only about 40% of the subjects had worked regularly before their first conviction, and that nearly 39%o had never worked at all.

      The average number of convictions per subject was 7. The mean length of prison sentence given was 31.9 months (that is, over  2.5 years), while the average stay in prison was 24.44 months, that is, just over two years.  Out of 922 sentences, 43.1%  did not exceed 18 months. The percentage of prison sentences of five years and over was only 6.6%. These facts may indicate that the offenders in this group had not committed serious crimes that were a real threat to law and order. But the sentences passed for the first two cases were statistically significantly lower than those imposed for later crimes. A similar statistically significant difference was noted as regards length of successive periods spent at liberty. After each period in prison, the periods at liberty became successively shorter. Nevertheless generally speaking the tempo of recidivism was very high in this group. Out of a total number of 818 periods spent in freedom,  11.4%  had a duration not exceeding a month, while 40%  did not exceed six months in duration. The percentage of periods of freedom that lasted for more than three years was barely 7.4% in this group.

     As for the structure of offenies committed by the subjects in this group, offences against property dominated, for  85.9% of the total number of  1,784 offences committed were offences of this type, offences against the person 3.48%  of the total, offences against authority 3.48%, and offences against the family 1.23%. Theft of private property accounted for 50% of all the offences  committed by the recidivists in this group.  Serious crimes, such as rape, homicide, or robbery, constituted barely  2.2%  of all the offences committed by this group, and by far the most were robberies. But even robbery, regarded as a serious crime, formed a tiny percentage of all the offences committed, for out of the total numbet of 1,784 offences, 37 were robberies.

     In more than 75% of the crimes against property, the sums obtained were no more than 5,000 zlotys, while in only 11%  of the total cases did the sum obtained exceed 10,000 zlotys .

    Several methods were used to assess the effectiveness of imprisonment. The first method was to work out the correlation between the variable "time in prison”  and the variable "time at in freedom". This correlation turend out to be nearly 0 (r = 0.02). This means that we can reject the hypothesis that there is a positive connection between length of imprisonment and time spent in freedom. The second method was to study the length of time spent in freedom  after periods of imprisonment of various lengths: up to 6 months, from 7  to 12 month., from 1 to 2  years, from 2 to 3 years,  and 3 years and over. Here, too, there was no significant correlation (X2 = 5.10; df = 12), which is below the level of significance. The third method was to try to find out if there was a significant diffence in duration of freedom between the recidivists sentenced to terms  of up to 6 months, and those sentenced to three years and over. The aim of this method was to discover if what are regarded as long terms in prison are followed by longer terms in the outside world. In other words,  it would be interesting to know if long-term incarceration has a deterrent effect. In this case, too, no significant statistical defferences were found (X2 = O,32; dt= 3, which is below the level of significance). Thus it would  seem that in our group of subjects' length of time in prison had no effect at all on the tempo of recidivism. This was confirmed by analysis of the duration of the first stay in prison as compared with the subsequent  time spent in freedom:  (X2 = 2.80; df = 4, which is below the level of significance).

      There have been more and more frequent assertions of late, that the Polish criminal justice system has becoming more  and more punitive. The present study tried to test whether these assertions are justified with reference to the  population of multi-recedivists. Hence the period 1948-1978 was divided into five stages more or less corresponding to different phases of penal policy in Poland. These stages are as follows: Period I (l948-1955), Period II (1956-1960), Period III ( 1961-1965), Period IV (1966-1969), and Period V (197O-1978). The next step was to determine the character of penal policy towards recidivists during these various stages. As regards the length of the first prison sentences, the t test for the significance of the differences between the means showed that the mean duration of prison sentences in Period I (which was a very punitive period) was significantly greater than the duration of sentences passed in Period II and III. On the other hand, the mean duration of sentences passed in Periods I and IV showed no significant difference. This means that from the high figure un the "Stalin era”, the mean length of first prison sentences fell sharply in the next decade (especially in the „post October 1956" period), after which it gradually rose again, till in the period 1966-1969 it had reached a level not much lower than that of the "Stalin era". A similar analysis was made  of the second prison sentences meted out. Our findings were that during the whole time under review there were no drastic changes of penal policy towards persons previously sentenced. (None of the differences between the means representing the duration of second prison sentences were statistically significant). The highest mean length of prison sentences  was noted in Period I. There was a sharp fall in Period II, followed again by a gradual rise, until Period V, when length of sentence again was nearly as great as in Period I. Since similar results were obtained when the means of the length of third prison sentences in the various periods were compared, as well as the  means for the length of all sentences meted out in all five periods (here the tendency we have been discussing was particularly evident), the hypothesis as to the steadily increasing punitive character of the punitive justice system in Poland would seem to be borne out by the evidence.

         Use of the means has this drawback: that with the exception of the standard deviation we have no other information about the sentences coming into different duration categories. For this reason we carried out an extra test, which consisted in comparing the distribution of sentences in the same five periods, but in categories with sentences of up to 1 year, from 1 year to 2 years, and sentences of two years and over. Here, too, the same tendency was found (X2=119.19;  df = 8; p<0.01).

         The following conclusions were reached as a result of this study. The principles behind the paragraph of the Penal Code which deals with special multiple recidivism, and the construction of that paragraph, are wrong. Instead of being aimed maiunly at the perpetrators of serious crimes against person, as well as serious crimes against property, this paragraph in actual fact affects the perpretators of petty or very petty offences against property. On the whole these are habitual petty thieves, who offer no real serious threat to law and order. The result is that in the practice of punitive justice system even a very petty theft comitted in conditions of special multiple recidivism leads to a long term of  imprisonment. The consequence is that it also leads to a formal increase of recidivism, for if the law were different, the case could be discontinued or suspended. Hence Art. 60 § 2 of the Penal Code should definitely be abrogated.


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