How do you measure a youth’s success after they’ve gone through the juvenile justice system? Stellar grades and a job at a Fortune 500 company may set the bar a little high — so many states rely on recidivism rates, which track whether juveniles have repeated run-ins with the law.
But there are many differences in how recidivism is measured across states and agencies. If a juvenile reoffends as an adult, he or she bypasses the juvenile system and lands in state prison. A juvenile may also be arrested for a different kind of crime. Both these cases may or may not contribute to measures of juvenile recidivism, depending on the variables used to calculate the rate.
According to a recent report from the Council of State Governments Justice Center, about half the states track recidivism by specific juvenile facility — e.g., residential placement or detention centers — and only about a third track by length of stay. This lack of consistency makes it almost impossible to compare across states and agencies.
But as long as there is a sustained measure of recidivism, it is still possible to track individual progress. Rates are generally measured by criminal acts that result in re-arrest or re-conviction during a three-year period following the prisoner’s release.
“If states harness the potential of effective recidivism data collection they can improve performance, use money more wisely and enforce accountability,” said Josh Weber, author of the Justice Center report.
Data is often used as a general evaluation of the juvenile justice system — not used to inform policy decisions, the report says.
What doesn’t recidivism measure?
Recidivism is an important part of the story of success post-incarceration. But so is education. So is employment. So is health. If states collect only recidivism data to track juvenile justice outcomes, which many do, they leave out these crucial metrics.
The report found out that only half of all state juvenile correctional agencies measure youth outcomes beyond whether youth commit future delinquent acts. Furthermore, only 20 percent of states track these outcomes for youth after they are no longer on supervision.
The report urges policymakers and juvenile justice agency leaders to collect and analyze data that includes positive youth outcomes to “determine not only whether the juvenile justice system is helping to prevent youth’s subsequent involvement in the system, but also whether it is helping youth transition to a crime-free and productive adulthood.”
Professor Michael D. Maltz, author of the book “Recidivism,” thinks that states make a dangerous assumption when they rely solely on recidivism as a measure of correctional effectiveness.
Doing so “implies that offenders — not society — need correcting, that we know how to correct offenders, and that correcting offenders will lead to reduced criminality,” Maltz writes in his book.
Why is recidivism so commonly used as a measure?
Because it’s easy to collect, says Patrick Griffin, program officer at the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation. The variables needed to calculate recidivism rates are operational data.
“[Operational data] doesn’t have any measures devoted to finding out how did that kid end up? How is he doing in school? What is his employment situation?” Griffin said. “[Operational data] isn’t policy-driven. The system keeps track of operational data because it needs it to operate.”
Maltz writes: “A measure of success should be based on positive accomplishments, not on the absence of negative findings.”
The basic premise in using only recidivism to evaluate juvenile justice outcomes is this: If the youth doesn’t get rearrested, he or she is successful and the juvenile justice process they went through is effective.
“It’s a very crude measure,” Griffin said.
“One way to have low recidivism rates is to sweep up kids who are low risk and formally handle them in the system,” Griffin said. “If the system concentrates only on very high-risk kids you’ll probably have higher recidivism rates.”
Is there a risk associated with too much data collection?
The biggest issue with expanding data is access to sensitive information, says Cristin Evans, communications manager at the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority. The state agency collects and studies criminal data much like the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.
“What governmental agency or agencies would have the authority to track juveniles once they have been released from the criminal justice system and have become private adult citizens?” she asked. “Is it an invasion of privacy to extract and maintain future records about their employers, educational institutions, doctors, landlord, mortgage holders, vital statistics, driving records?”
Elizabeth Clarke, president of the Illinois nonprofit Juvenile Justice Initiative, agrees. She is also wary of too much data collection.
“[Ex-convicts] try so hard to move on,” she said. “Years ago, when you made a mistake, it was so much easier to make amends.”
Clarke worries that today, records of shoplifting as an 18-year-old can come back to haunt an ex-convict when it comes to housing and employment.
But she offers a possible solution to the sensitivity aspect of collecting data.
“We never collect individual data,” she said. “We collect aggregate data. We believe in confidentiality.”
Can data fall short in evaluating juvenile justice outcomes?
The report by the Justice Center suggests tying funding to improvements in recidivism rates as a way to enforce accountability. But there can be problems with relying on numbers to tell the full story.
Kaye Wilson, a consultant for Chicago Area Project (CAP), a network of organizations that prevents juvenile delinquency through community building, says CAP’s funding — which comes from private organizations and the government — has always been tenuous.
“When we get funding, they expect us to work miracles in a year. We can’t do it,” Wilson said. “You can’t undo 18 years of trauma in one year.”
The CAP has often had funding pulled from promising programs due to a lack of short-term progress. Wilson says an inability to meet these goals within a year or two doesn’t mean there hasn’t been an impact on kids.
“It might take four to five years to have a real impact because kids go in and out,” Wilson said. “They drop out of school but then they come back to us when they’re desperate.” In her experience, sometimes it takes more than one or two exposures to programs before juveniles are on the right track for good.
Whose responsibility is it to collect data on juvenile justice?
Among its many recommendations, the Justice Center’s report calls for states to develop an expansive infrastructure to analyze and report data on juvenile justice. This infrastructure should include measures such as annual performance reports and recommendations, an electronic case management system to streamline information and effective data-sharing structures.
Is it feasible to do what the report recommends: measure recidivism effectively and incorporate juvenile justice metrics beyond recidivism?
“It’s not impossible to do, but you have to re-orient people and organizations to keep track of those measures,” Griffin said. “... It’s just not a priority yet.”
Griffin points to Pennsylvania as an example of a state with a holistic approach to collecting data. In Pennsylvania, the state collects robust data on juveniles post-probation and evaluates whether they are productively engaged in school or their place of employment.
Weber, the author of the Justice Center report, said without being able to measure outcomes, you won’t know if you’re being efficient. But if data is being used to spearhead resource allocation and policymaking, it has to be able to capture the nuance inherent in the rocky road of success many juveniles are on.
“This is not a quick fix,” Wilson said. “It doesn’t happen overnight.”
This story was produced by The Chicago Bureau.