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.

Serious Juvenile Offenders: Do Mental Health Problems Elevate Risk?

The general adolescent population is estimated to have a rate of 9 percent to 21 percent in occurrence of diagnosable psychiatric disorders. In comparison, researchers have established that the juvenile offender population has a disproportionately high rate of mental health problems, with estimates suggesting it is as high as 50 percent to 70 percent. Additionally, a majority of the diagnosable youth in the juvenile system have a co-occurring substance-use disorder. Many initiatives dealing with mental health problems in juvenile offenders have treated them as a criminogenic risk factor; positing that, if these problems are addressed, youth’s risk for repeat offenses will decrease and their involvement in pro-social activity will increase. It is important that mental health problems be addressed for these youth,  but we require a better understanding of the role mental health problems play for offending to better inform program development.

The Importance of Evidenced-Based Research in Establishing Juvenile Justice Policy

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.