In Juvenile Justice Care, Boys Get Worse


Is it time for the United States to haul in its law-and-order approach to adolescent misbehavior?

Time for principals to stop sending students to court for run-of-the-mill fist-fights or mouthing off? For police to stop dragging kids to court over status offenses and disorderly conduct? For juvenile courts to stop imposing probation on youth wholesale, and for juvenile corrections systems to reduce their stubborn reliance on training schools?

Those are the unmistakable implications of an eye-opening Canadian study released in August that followed a group of disadvantaged Montreal boys throughout childhood and into adulthood. It found that – controlling for self-reported delinquency and a range of other variables – the more deeply involved a boy got with the juvenile justice system, the more likely he was to get arrested as an adult. Involvement with the juvenile system was the single greatest predictor of criminality in the study – by far.

The study joins a stream of recent research indicating that, both here and abroad, juvenile justice systems are more likely to exacerbate delinquency than cure it, especially when young people are incarcerated or placed into group treatment programs where they interact with other troubled and trouble-making teens.

In the study, researchers began tracking more than 1,000 French-Canadian kindergarten boys in 1984; all came from disadvantaged Montreal neighborhoods. The investigators evaluated the youths annually from ages 10 to 17, through interviews with parents, teachers, classmates and the young people themselves. They also searched court records to track the youths’ contact with the justice system through age 25.

Among the 779 youths for whom complete data were compiled, nearly 15 percent had judicial records as juveniles and 18 percent had adult criminal records by age 25. Those with hyperactive/impulsive personalities or high levels of self-reported delinquency during adolescence were most likely to have adult records. Low family income, weak parental supervision and association with deviant peers were also correlated with adult crime.

Even controlling for those variables, the study found, youth who had been involved in juvenile court were seven times more likely to have adult criminal records than youth with the same backgrounds and self-reported delinquency but no juvenile court record. What’s more, the study says, “The more restrictive and more intense the justice system intervention was, the greater was its negative impact.”

Compared to youths with equivalent behavior and delinquency histories, but no history in juvenile court:

• Youths who received mild sentences (such as counseling, community service or restitution) were 2.3 times as likely to incur adult criminal records.

• Youths placed on probation were 14 times as likely to incur adult records.

• Youths placed in a juvenile correctional institution were 38 times as likely to have adult records.

“Placement in an institution,” the study concludes, “exerts by far the strongest criminogenic effect.”

It’s the same all over

Shocking as these findings may seem, they confirm what criminologists have been finding for years: Juvenile court involvement typically leads to more, rather than less, criminality.

In 2007, a longitudinal study of Scottish youth (Youth Justice? The Impact of System Contact on Patterns of Desistance from Offending) showed that those who faced a juvenile hearing were nearly twice as likely to admit engaging in serious offending (48 percent vs. 28 percent) in the following year as youth with identical backgrounds and prior self-reported offending behavior who did not face court hearings.

A 2003 study tracking youth in Denver and in Bremen, Germany, (The Effect of Juvenile Justice System Processing on Subsequent Delinquent and Criminal Behavior) found that, in both cities, “those arrested and sanctioned display higher frequencies of involvement in crime at later stages in their life than do their delinquent age mates who were not so sanctioned.”

Likewise, a study tracking several thousand Philadelphia children born in 1958 found that boys sentenced to a correctional facility as juveniles were more likely to continue their offending during adulthood than similar youth who were not incarcerated.


While the recent Montreal study did not tease out the reasons why juvenile court involvement led to worse outcomes, prior research suggests three causes:

1. “Labeling” – The idea is that once youth get arrested and go to court, school officials, police, courts and corrections systems treat them more severely and entrap them in the justice system. For instance, the recent Scottish study found that “certain groups of youngsters – who might readily be termed the ‘usual suspects’ – become the principal focus of agency attention. These youngsters are recycled into the hearing system again and again, no matter whether their offending has diminished in seriousness or frequency, or whether their formally assessed levels of need have been addressed.”

In turn, this increased contact with the system reduces the chances that the youth will desist from delinquency.

A California study in the 1980s randomly assigned youth who committed delinquent offenses to either outright release, referral to counseling, placement in counseling or prosecution in juvenile court. In follow-up surveys, youth from all groups reported similar levels of subsequent misbehavior, but youth released outright proved far less likely to be taken to court and sanctioned for future offenses than youth in any of the other groups. The stronger the initial sanction, the more likely the youth would be re-arrested and adjudicated in juvenile court.

2. The impact of juvenile sanctions on young people’s progress in school and subsequent success in the labor market – According to a U.S. Department of Education study (cited in The Dangers of Detention: The Impact of Incarcerating Youth in Detention and Other Secure Facilities.), three-fifths of youth incarcerated as ninth-graders either never re-enrolled in school or dropped out within five months of returning to school.

Bruce Western of Princeton University has found that people in their early 20s who had been locked up as juveniles worked three weeks less per year than equivalent young adults who were not incarcerated. Even after 15 years, those incarcerated as juveniles were working significantly less than their counterparts who were never sentenced to a youth corrections facility.

This damage to youths’ progress in education and employment is especially important given what we know about the nature of delinquency: that a large majority of youth commit delinquent acts during adolescence, and about one-third commit serious crimes. Yet most youth grow out of delinquency as they assume adult roles in society.

“What if our traditional juvenile justice practices interrupted this normal trajectory and, instead of impeding future delinquency, actually caused harm to our communities by increasing offending?” asks Barry Holman, who oversees research and quality assurance for the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services in Washington, D.C., and has served as director of research and public policy for the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives.

3. “Deviant peer contagion” – This is sociologists’ fancy label for the simple idea that if you throw a lot of troubled teenagers together in a group, they’re likely to reinforce each others’ negative conduct and behave worse. This dynamic is most apparent in the rueful results of the country’s training schools and other juvenile correctional facilities, which routinely show recidivism rates of 50 percent to 80 percent.

Longitudinal studies about the impact of juvenile incarceration yield results ranging from bad to worse. The most favorable, like the initial report of the MacArthur Foundation’s “Pathways to Desistance” project released in December, find that despite the enormous expense of incarceration, youth sentenced to juvenile facilities are no less likely to re-offend than youth supervised in the community at a fraction of the cost. Other research, like the new Montreal study, find that juvenile incarceration substantially increases future offending.

Barry Feld, a leading juvenile justice scholar at the University of Minnesota, has called juvenile training schools and youth prisons “the one extensively evaluated and clearly ineffective method to ‘treat’ delinquents.”

Even when youth aren’t locked up together in institutions, group treatment can have negative and even counterproductive results. Richard Tremblay, one of the Montreal study’s authors, believes this negative peer dynamic is probably the biggest culprit behind the juvenile justice system’s poor outcomes in Montreal and elsewhere. “By putting adolescents together you’re only encouraging them to imitate each other,” he says. “Most of these kids are receiving a treatment that is seriously harming them. … And it’s costly.”

The hard line continues

How are juvenile court and corrections officials responding to the evidence that the deeper youth are involved in the juvenile courts and the more correctional “treatment” they receive, the worse their results?

For the most part they’re not. Not withstanding some high-profile reform efforts like the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 100-site detention reform initiative, most juvenile justice systems have instead been expanding their nets rather than limiting formal court processing and reducing reliance on correctional sanctions and treatment, as the research suggests.

From 1994 through 2005, a period when youth homicides and other serious juvenile crimes declined dramatically, the number of youth adjudicated in juvenile courts increased sharply for virtually every class of minor offense: liquor law adjudications up 57 percent, adjudication for “public order offenses” up 70 percent, simple assault adjudications (typically fighting) up 80 percent, and adjudications for “disorderly conduct” up 109 percent. This, despite growing evidence that informal responses to routine adolescent misbehavior yield far better outcomes.

“Veteran juvenile justice researcher Jeffery Butts takes a harsh view of the juvenile system’s intransigence. “If you’re going to take away a kid’s liberty or impose some sanction on him,” he says, “you ought to make damned sure that what you’re doing does more good than harm.”

Veteran writer Dick Mendel has written several publications for the Casey Foundation.


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