Study: Youth Offenses, Sentences, Predict Little about Recidivism


Data emerging from a seven years’ study of young offenders suggest that the nature of a serious juvenile crime or the length of time served for it, does not do a very good job predicting if a youth will re-offend.

“Burglars are not all the same, neither are car thieves or assaulters,” said Edward Mulvey, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh.  “Just because they’ve done a certain type of offense doesn’t mean they’re on a particular path to continued high offending or more serious offending.”

Mulvey is principal investigator on the Pathways to Desistance study, which followed some 1,300 youths convicted of mostly felony offenses in Phoenix and Philadelphia for seven years after adjudication. Analyses are now being published.

“The way you code a presenting offense, you can do it violent or not violent, property or not property, you can do it a lot of ways; it never comes out as a real strong predictor of outcome,” Mulvey said, explaining some of his latest analysis.

The finding supports some prior academic literature, and adds to evidence that the finding is the same for the most serious offenses.

When it comes to writing law, state lawmakers have to think of their voters’ standards, Mulvey explained, but suggested lawmakers also consider that the kids convicted of any certain serious crime seem to be very different, heterogeneous people.

He gave the example of “transfer” laws: some states automatically send minors to adult court for certain offenses. Mulvey said he believes that a state law that leaves the transfer decision up to judges in every individual case “makes a lot more sense.”

But once a juvenile is in state custody, the length of stay appears to have nothing to do with the recidivism rate, said Thomas Loughran, of the University of Maryland’s Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. He worked on that issue with the Pathways data by comparing two similar groups of youth.

“The more [time] we gave them, it didn’t make any difference, there was no effect” on recidivism, he reported, though cautioning that the bulk of the kids in the study served between three and 13 months.

“There’s a lot of competing theories [about] why that is,” he said, and thinks no answer is definitive. It could have to do with youth psychological development, he ventured, or low-risk kids mixing with high recidivism-risk kids in the same detention center.

Further, Loughran said his numbers show “no significant difference” in the re-arrest rate for offenders who served probation versus detention.

The Pathways study also suggests that family involvement in drug treatment is more effective than the treatment alone, Mulvey said.

Mulvey recently discussed the progress of his work at a National Juvenile Justice Network meeting, which published a short summary.

The Pathways to Desistance baseline data was published in August. Mulvey plans to write several more bulletins about the study via the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, a sponsor of the study, and later write a book.

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