Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Moving Target: Identifying and Targeting Repeat Offenders

Research in the field of criminal justice indicates that a small number of offenders account for a disproportionate amount of crime. These offenders, often referred to as serial offenders, frequent offenders or prolific offenders share some common traits. They appear to be undeterred by the criminal justice system. By virtue of their frequent involvement in criminal acts, their actions consume significant resources. They cause significant harm to the community not only through their actions, but also the resources expended on detecting, pursuing and incarcerating them. However, frequent offenders have one redeeming quality; they are predictable.

If a small group of offenders commit a disproportionate amount of crime, it is logical to conclude that targeting repeat offenders could be an effective means of crime reduction. However, crime reduction strategies that limit their scope to pursuing and arresting frequent offenders are doomed to failure. If the police are to reduce the demand on resources and reduce the harm caused to the community, alternative strategies must be explored. Varying philosophies of policing offer alternative ways to impact crime and disorder, each with its own merits. While academic theory in the field of criminal justice has proven invaluable, studies of practical application and what works remains the true measure of success.

Understanding Frequent Offenders

Academic research of recidivism is remarkably consistent. Here are just a few examples: A 1945 study of 10,000 boys born in the City of Philadelphia revealed that, while most youths in the sample did not follow a criminal path, a small group amounting to 6.3% of the sample were involved in frequent criminal acts. Further, this group of frequent offenders accounted for 52% of all recorded offenses. Across the ocean in Australia, analysis of a police initiative which targeted burglary offenders revealed that 18% of the offenders had 15 or more convictions (Ratcliffe 54-59). In Madison Wisconsin, community concern over offensive behavior by persons who appeared to suffer from mental illness drew local media attention. The media estimated the number of persons involved at over 1,000. A study of the problem revealed that only about 20 people were responsible for the problem (Goldstein 105). A 2004 study of criminal traffic offenders in Green Bay Wisconsin revealed that 81% of those cited for the criminal traffic offense of operating with a revoked license had at least one prior conviction. Remarkably, 35% had five or more prior convictions for the same offense (Bongle 4). “A very small proportion of the total population is responsible for a large proportion of serious offenses reported to the police (Taylor and Fritsch 421).”

           There is also evidence to suggest that frequent offenders tend to commit repeat crimes against the same target. One researcher who interviewed 21 serial burglars reported, “76% said they had gone back to a number of houses after a varying period to burgle them between two and five times (Everson and Pease 216).”   Additional research suggests that neighborhoods plagued by high crime rates have a high rate of repeat victimization, leading to the conclusion that frequent offenders and repeat victims are related to each other (Tilley 18). This information supports the notion that repeat offenders exhibit some predictability. Understanding this dynamic may help the police detect and arrest repeat offenders. 

While the primary reason for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder, the duty of the police to detect crime and arrest those involved remains a central focus. The phenomenon of disproportionate criminality and targeted victimization is of great interest to the police for both preventing crime and targeting offenders. The current economic climate has created a situation in which administrators must make difficult budgetary decisions and police agencies must function with limited or reduced resources. Naturally, administrators seek ways to improve efficiency while continuing to serve their communities. Through better understanding of the relationship between repeat offenders and repeat victimization, the police may be able to develop more effective intervention strategies.

Many effective strategies that have emerged over the last two decades find their roots in the philosophy of Problem Oriented Policing (POP) and Community Oriented Policing (COP). The two acronyms, though sometimes used interchangeably, mean different things. And while POP and COP philosophies complement each other, the terms bear enough resemblance for the layperson to confuse them.  POP focuses on specific problems and often incorporates a methodical approach known as the SARA model. SARA is an acronym for a four-step problem solving process designed to first identify (Scan), study (Analyze), implement a strategy based on the results of research (Response), and evaluate the effectiveness of the strategy (Assess).   A hallmark of POP involves focusing attention on problems that draw significant resources, things that merit police attention. Problems are usually defined by two or more events, similar in nature and about which the public expects the police to do something about. Successful POP strategies usually involve comprehensive approaches, some level of community engagement and community partnerships. POP recognizes that the arrest of offenders is only one of many tactics to address crime and community problems (Goldstein 65-66).

COP is a philosophy that seeks to build collaboration, trust and partnerships with the community. COP is a broad approach that includes problem solving as a strategy. In COP, citizens play a vital role in identifying and setting police priorities. Citizen surveys and community meetings are two examples where the public communicates priorities to the police. COP is often thought of as the cop on the beat. While community engagement is a primary tenet of COP, describing the concept in these terms does not adequately explain the depth and importance of the COP philosophy. COP focuses on building relationships with members of the community, earning trust and delivering quality service. COP emerged in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s as researchers searched for ways to rebuild community trust following civil unrest of the 60’s (Trojanowicz and Bucqeroux 2).

Since a component of Problem Oriented Policing involves the collaboration of community partners, the value of the Community Oriented Policing philosophy should not be underestimated. In fact, the two are inextricably linked, for without collaboration and assistance from the community, POP strategies would stand little chance of success.

Intelligence Led Policing (ILP) is another emerging philosophy which places emphasis on gathering information about criminal activity through crime analysis, data analysis and research to help the police disrupt criminal activity and prevent crime. A core aspect of ILP is the identification of repeat offenders which leads to a targeted approach. When the police become preoccupied with handling service calls, little attention is paid to addressing the underlying conditions that contribute to crime. ILP provides focus for the police to attack problems that cause the most harm to the community. ILP has evolved into a management philosophy which stresses information sharing, collaboration and developing strategic solutions to crime problems (Ratcliffe 89).

A logical progression in police administration is the combination of POP, COP and ILP. Technological advancements in the area of crime mapping have improved the ability of the police to detect frequent event locations, commonly referred to as hot spots. While the concept of crime mapping is not a new one, the prevalence of GIS (Global Information Services) and web-based utilities are making it easier for police to identify and track patterns of activity. Intelligence systems that draw data from a variety of data sources and take into account multiple variables are providing police with some exciting crime fighting tools. The concept of predictive analytics was once considered science fiction. Now police agencies like Charleston, S.C. are making use of these technologies to deploy police resources to places prone to criminal activity in an effort to deter crime (Fisher 1). Turnkey software solutions are becoming more prevalent and police agencies are making increased use of them.

While POP and COP have delivered in identifying hot spots, identifying frequent offenders has proven to be more difficult. Crime associated with frequent offenders may or may not be isolated to a specific geographic location.  Repeat offenders may offend in multiple locations and have contact with different police officers on different shifts. Absent an organized and scientific way of detecting them, they may go undetected. Frequent offenders are, in effect, moving targets.

Ratliff acknowledges that the police, through frequent contacts, are probably aware who the most prolific offenders are in their communities however, such observations are anecdotal and unscientific (59). The concept of hot spot analysis is arguably a logical strategy for the police to detect and even prevent crime in neighborhoods. However, if the police limit their focus to environmental factors and hot spot analysis, they may overlook important information relative to frequent offenders who are unencumbered by police patrol districts or jurisdictional boundaries. Just as there is value in identifying frequent event locations, there is also value in identifying the moving targets, i.e., frequent offenders. In doing so, it helps to understand more about them. Enter ILP.

Research has shown that people exhibit predictable patterns of behavior and so it’s no surprise that frequent offenders begin their career at a young age. One predictor of who may become a frequent offender is the age a juvenile is first arrested. Interestingly, juveniles arrested between the ages of 6 and14 are far more likely to become frequent offenders than those who have not been arrested. Of those arrested at this young age, 68% will likely go on to commit three or more crimes while 37% will go on to commit violent offenses ("Wisconsin Family Impact Seminars" 14-15). 

While some of these offenders are committing criminal offenses, many are juveniles who are committing "status offenses", acts that if committed by an adult would not be considered a crime. Status offenses include acts such as underage drinking, running away from home, truancy and curfew violations. Acts of juvenile delinquency, while non-criminal in nature, can lead to more destructive behaviors (Taylor and Fritsch 5). For example, a juvenile out after curfew may be involved in home burglaries or, a juvenile whose judgment is impaired by alcohol may commit a more serious offense. In addition, status offense or not, the impact on police resources is the same. Therefore, status offenses should be given attention as well.

Even minor incidents of social disorder can help predict future patterns of criminal conduct. According to Coumarelos, “…the “Youth Lifestyles Survey found that boys (12-17 years old) who used drugs were nearly 5 times more likely to be offenders.” and,  “… factors with the best chance of predicting offending for 10-15 year olds were being the victim of a crime themselves, committing antisocial behavior, taking drugs, and being regularly drunk (Ratcliffe 57).”

Additional research suggests that the most prolific repeat offenders are males between the age of 10 and 17. Combine this with the research that shows that a minority of offenders commit a disproportionately high number of crimes. For example, the majority of burglaries and robberies are committed by juveniles between the ages of 15 and 17 years old (Tilley 12).

Traditionally, the focus of the police has been to detect and arrest those involved in criminal activity. One might be tempted to think that, for example, the arrest of a serial burglar would result in a dramatic reduction in home burglaries for the entire community. While that may be true for the period of time the individual is incarcerated, we already know that a disproportionate amount of crime is committed by frequent offenders. “This is compelling evidence that a broad-brush reliance of the legal and criminal justice system to impact positively on the crime rate is a flawed strategy (Ratliff 63).” This is not to suggest that arresting offenders is not the right thing to do. On the contrary, the identification, pursuit and the arrest of offenders is, and will remain, a core function of the police. However, the police should not limit themselves to this singular function but instead, take a more comprehensive approach, taking into consideration research and study what is working in other communities.

San Diego Graffiti and Suppression project

In 2000, the San Diego Police Department received international recognition for conceiving and implementing a successful project aimed at the reduction of graffiti. The problem was identified by the community as a priority through surveys. Two officers assigned to study the project learned, among other things, that a small group of juveniles were responsible for a generating a disproportionate amount of graffiti in their community. Through research and interviews with juveniles who were involved in the graffiti, the police gained a better understanding of the factors which led the juveniles to commit this offense. They also learned that the act of committing this sort of criminal act was often a precursor to other, more serious criminal activity. Police were able to develop a comprehensive strategy with six distinctive approaches, when combined proved to be very successful (Albright, Hard, and Tos 9).

One particularly successful strategy involved targeting the most prolific offenders with an intensive counseling program aimed at addressing the underlying motivations of those involved. (It is interesting to note that the offenders themselves provided this key piece of information.) While the strategy was conceived by the police through analysis, it involved the participation of multiple community partners including: juvenile probation officers, counselors, the juvenile court, youth services, and community volunteers. Assessment of the program revealed that 30% of the offenders were no longer involved in this act, to any degree. Overall, the program resulted in a 90% reduction in graffiti in the project area (Albright, Hard, and Tos 11).

Regina Auto Theft Reduction Strategy

In the mid 1990’s the community of Regina, located in Saskatchewan Canada, experienced a notable increase in auto thefts. Traditional means of attacking the problem through increased enforcement were unsuccessful and as a result, the Regina Police Service implemented a project team to study the problem and develop a more effective strategy. 

Regina Police confirmed that a disproportionate number of auto thefts were being committed by small group of repeat offenders. Through multiple interviews with offenders, police learned more about their motivations and used this information to develop a customized strategy with the goal of creating disincentives to those motivations.

The Regina strategy, like the San Diego approach, involved multiple community partners which included: prosecutors, correctional officers, the automobile insurance industry, educators, the media and members of the public. The approach was a comprehensive one involving public education and early intervention first time, youthful offenders. One very effective aspect of the strategy involved the identification and targeting of frequent and repeat offenders.

The term targeting is not limited to the arrest and prosecution of repeat offenders. In the Regina project a committee brought together a group of criminal justice professionals to work on the issue. The group’s focus was to reduce the recidivism of those involved in automobile theft. The process began with keeping a database of the most chronic offenders so that when police and prosecutors encountered them, enhanced measures could be taken. These measures included: charging the offender with the maximum applicable offense, holding the offender in custody until court appearance and, a request by the prosecutor to the courts for the offender to be remain in custody until the case was adjudicated. The modified approach did not end there.

Counseling and program interventions were initiated while youthful offenders were held in custody.  Upon release, the corrections department initiated a more intense supervision program. Court ordered conditions were imposed such as curfew, and disallowing offenders to associate with known criminal offenders. Police and probation officers partnered to conduct home visits to verify that curfew conditions were being followed. Violators of these conditions were charged and dealt with harshly (Hawkes 10).

The police also stepped up their enforcement efforts by: maintaining more detailed records, working closely with the courts, and implementing aggressive enforcement tactics like using bait vehicles. In 2001, the first year after the strategy was implemented, auto thefts in Regina were reduced by 28.4%. By 2003, the problem had been reduced by a total of 32.6% (Hawkes 13).

Green Bay’s Prolific Repeat Offender Action Team (PROACT)

           Through crime analysis, GBPD has identified a group of frequent offenders. The information was gathered from Green Bay’s records management system which identified persons with the largest number of police contacts in which they were listed as a “subject”.  A period of one year was examined under the premise that the information contained in the report would be current and relevant. Individuals with fifteen or more offenses in one year were identified as PROACT candidates. Using these criteria, 24 adults and 8 juveniles were identified. Of the 8 juveniles, 4 were classified as status offenders.

The PROACT concept is based in the principles described in POP, COP and ILP. Understanding that collaborative, problem solving efforts fed by data and research are the most likely to impact Green Bay’s frequent offenders, a team of area professionals were identified as community partners. The PROACT team will review the case history of frequent offenders, make recommendations and develop strategies aimed at reducing repeat offenses.  PROACT will meet regularly to review the cases and determine the effectiveness of those strategies. The first PROACT meeting was held on April 25, 2012 and was attended by 25 area professionals. Those attending included: youth services, prosecutors, alcohol and substance abuse counselors, educators, and mental health professionals. The group identified four goals:

  • Reduce harm to the community
  • Reduce the resources expended on chronic offenders
  • Deter offenders from committing future acts
  • Measure outcomes


When examining best practices, the most effective strategies shared characteristics found in three recognized philosophies: Problem Oriented Policing, Community Oriented Policing and Intelligence Led Policing. Upon review of successful initiatives relating to crime reduction and repeat offenders, a number of common themes emerged:

  • Identifying and targeting repeat offenders proved to be an effective strategy in reducing and preventing crime
  • Offender interviews were a valuable tool in understanding the motivation and dynamics of criminal behavior
  • Citizens played a role in identifying priorities for the police
  • Analysis was used to corroborate citizen priorities
  • Juvenile offenders are a legitimate target for intervention strategies because most frequent offenders begin their criminal careers as juveniles and programs targeting juveniles have the highest rate of success
  • Community problems were more effectively addressed when police expanded their analysis from hot spots (places) to include frequent offenders (people)
  • Incentives as well as disincentives to criminal behavior resulted in the most dramatic decrease in recidivism
  • The most effective intervention strategies promoted a decreased reliance on the criminal justice system and increased use of community treatment and other alternatives
  • Arrest and punishment were viewed as but one of many strategies to reduce crime and deter frequent offenders
While the study of frequent offenders is not new, innovations in technology have made it easier for police to recognize patterns of criminal activity. How the police use these tools will vary greatly and depend on how they view their role in the community. How effective they will be will depend on their willingness to engage the community and adapt to changing variables in the public safety environment.

            In these case studies, law enforcement agencies were the catalyst in identifying and focusing attention on the problem. However, measurable successes were not achieved until the police engaged community partners. A hybrid approach seems to offer the greatest opportunity for success. Perhaps Ratcliffe said best; “An integrated strategy that combines some of the benefits of problem oriented policing with the targeted and objective approach of proactive policing seems to be the direction in which proponents of intelligence led policing are heading."


Albright, Dan, Corinne Hard, and David Tos. San Diego Police Department. Graffiti Prevention and Suppression. Center for Problem Oriented Policing, 2000. Web. 12 Jul 2012. <>.

Bongle, William. City of Green Bay. Green Bay Police Department. Habitual Traffic Offenders: Operation Revocation. 2004. Print.

Fisher, Sharon. "Charleston Tests Predictive Analytics For Crime Prevention." Information Week Government. 13 June 2012: 1. Print. <>.

Hawkes, Terry. Regina, Saskatchewan. Regina Police Service. Regina Auto Theft Strategy. Regina: Center for Problem Oriented Policing, 2004. Web. 12 Jul 2012. <>.

"Promising Approaches for Addressing Juvenile Crime." Wisconsin Family Impact Seminars. May 1994. Ed. Karen Bogenschneider. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1994. 14-15

Ratcliffe, J. Intelligence-led policing. Portland, Or: Willan Pub, 2008. Print.
Taylor, Robert, and Eric Fritsch. Juvenile Justice. 3rd. New York: McGraw Hill, 2011. 5. 

Tilley, Nick. "Repeat Offenders." Center for Problem Oriented Policing. Center for Problem Oriented Policing, 2011. Web. 17 Jul 2012. <

Trojanowicz, Robert, and Bonnie Bucqueroux. Community Policing: How to Get Started. 2nd. Cincinnati: Anderson Publishing, 1998. 2-4.

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