Over the last few decades politicians have advocated for stricter sentencing guidelines and for trying more juveniles as adults. These decisions have been largely driven by public fear and a desire by elected officials to be seen as “tough on crime.”
They do not rely on evidence-based research, one of the least used methods for determining juvenile justice policy.
Some of these attitudes seem to be changing though. Over the last few years, research has generated data that are beginning to be acknowledged by policy makers. One such study is Pathways to Desistance, sponsored by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in partnership with many other groups interested in effective juvenile justice practices. The study followed 1,354 serious juvenile offenders between the ages of 14 and 18 for seven years following their conviction.
Several interesting conclusions have been drawn from the study, as outlined in an OJJDP fact sheet prepared by Edward P. Mulvey, the lead researcher. According to the fact sheet, “Most youth who commit felonies greatly reduce their offending over time, regardless of the intervention.” This seems to point to the idea that as people mature they tend to make better decisions. This applies even to those who commit terrible crimes.
Another conclusion of the study is that longer stays in juvenile facilities do not lower the risk of reoffending when compared to placing the youths on probation. In fact, the group with the lowest level of offending actually tended to increase their criminality the longer they were kept in confinement. A better approach was community based supervision, which increased participation in school and work, and which led to lower rates of involvement with the juvenile system. Increasing the time that the juvenile spent in community based supervision led to even lower rates of reoffending.
The study also supports the efficacy of substance-abuse treatment. Even when taking into account the types of offenses, race and socioeconomic status, treatment that included strong family involvement led to a decrease in criminal behavior. One finding of the study is that the prevalence of drug use among juvenile offenders is three to four times higher than in the general population. Thirty seven percent of the males had been diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder. Dr. Mulvey suggests that joining substance abuse treatment with community-based supervision may lead to greater reduction in offending over the short and long term.
The OJJDP Statistical Briefing Book says that in 2007 (the last year listed) 86,927 juveniles were in detention. According to Models for Change, a website devoted to juvenile justice reform, seventy percent of these are held in state-run facilities, at an average cost of $240.99 a day to house. States are looking for ways to save money, and evidenced-based policies can help meet that goal. They are certainly a better choice than programs that are ineffective and that may actually increase crime.
I hope that studies like this will be taken into account when new policies are being decided. Juvenile life without parole, automatically trying juveniles as adults, and imposition of mandatory minimums on young offenders should all be revisited in light of studies such as Pathways to Desistance. Along with the latest research in adolescent brain development these real world studies point to a new way of approaching juvenile crime. Perhaps we can begin to salvage these kids instead of throwing them away.