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Locking Up Kids is Counter Productive

Brad Plumer at the Washington Post reports on a study of juvenile offenders in Chicago, some of whom were sent to juvenile detention and some of whom were diverted to other programs. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that kids who are sent to detention fare much worse and are more likely to commit crimes as an adult.

A new paper by economists Anna Aizer and Joseph J. Doyle, Jr. offers strong evidence that juvenile detention is a really counterproductive strategy for many youths under the age of 19. Not only does throwing a kid in detention often reduce the chance that he or she will graduate high school, but it also raises the chance that the youth will commit more crimes later on in life…

So, to figure this out, Aizer and Doyle took a look at the juvenile court system in Chicago, Illinois. The researchers found that certain judges in the system were more likely to recommend detention than others — even for similar crimes. That is, it’s possible to identify stricter and more lenient judges. And, since youths were assigned to judges at random, this created a randomized trial of sorts.

What the researchers found was striking. The kids who ended up incarcerated were 13 percentage points less likely to graduate high school and 22 percentage points more likely to end up back in prison as adults than the kids who went to court but were placed under, say, home monitoring instead. (This was after controlling for family background and so forth.) Juvenile detention appeared to be creating criminals, not stopping them.

The authors lay out a couple of reasons why this would be. Going to prison can obviously disrupt school and make it harder to get a job later on. But also, as other researchers have found, many people who end up behind bars end up making friends with other offenders and building “criminal capital.” Prison turns out to be excellent training for a life of crime.

There are many alternatives to incarceration for all but the most serious offenders (rapists and murderers, for instance) that work considerably better. But remember, a lot of states have turned their juvenile detention facilities over to private corporations, who have a financial incentive to keep the number of inmates inflated. So much so that in Pennsylvania, they bribed two judges millions of dollars to send fresh meat their way.

Comments

  1. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    OTOH, it figures that only the worst and least amenable to reason juvenile offenders will be sent t o juvenile detention so of course they’re always more likely to committ further crimes later aren’t they?

    Hint : The best way to make sure you stay out of “juvie” = don’t do the wrong thing!

    Ditto criminals generally – Don’t want the time – then don’t do the crime! Don’t break the law arseholes!

  2. Sastra says

    I would have thought this was obvious. Kids adapt to their peers in their environment and try to gain status. The inner culture of a detention center would presumably be success through bad-assery .

    Besides, there’s the old saying regarding ‘give a dog a bad name.’ Look how wicked you are. Live up to expectations.

    I suspect many judges think of detention centers as punishments and safeguards for society before they consider the rehabilitation aspect. Which is counter-productive.

  3. Ben P says

    Ok, In my current job a significant part of my work is in my state’s juvenile justice/Child Protective Services system.

    Barring serious felonies, by the time a kid gets sent to DYS, usually that kid has had months and months of attempts at other kinds of intervention. The kid is hauled into court with his parents, lectured by a judge, hauled back into court, parents are fined and parents and kids have to get counseling and do community service, hauled back into court and the judge wants to know why the parents fell off the wagon the second the prior court case ended, hauled back into court and hte kid spends a couple weeks in a “treatment facility,” hauled back into court after another re-offend and the judge still debates whether sending the kid to DYS for a couple years is appropriate.

    Setting aside that publically used terminology is a little different from the terminology inside the system. In the juvenile system kids are not “convicted’ they are “found to be delinquent.” What I described above is the usual course for a kid that is “delinquent” in the common sense, truancy, behavior problems in school, strings of minor crimes, drug problems, refusal to listen to parents etc.

    If a kid commits a serious crime, the system reacts differently. Just for example, the Stubenville rapists were both tried as juveniles, one was sentanced to a year in a detention center, and the other to two years in a detention center and they’ll be under the juvenile system until they turn 21. Whether they have to register as sex offenders after that point will be determined by a court upon their leaving the juvenile system.

  4. slc1 says

    Just a codicil the good old American theory of jurisprudence; Lock ‘em up like a mad dog and keep ‘em locked up (Former Michigan Supreme Court Justice John Voelker, who by the way considered the practice terribly inefficient))

  5. gshelley says

    @StevoR

    So, to figure this out, Aizer and Doyle took a look at the juvenile court system in Chicago, Illinois. The researchers found that certain judges in the system were more likely to recommend detention than others — even for similar crimes. That is, it’s possible to identify stricter and more lenient judges. And, since youths were assigned to judges at random, this created a randomized trial of sorts.

    What the researchers found was striking. The kids who ended up incarcerated were 13 percentage points less likely to graduate high school and 22 percentage points more likely to end up back in prison as adults than the kids who went to court but were placed under, say, home monitoring instead. (This was after controlling for family background and so forth.) Juvenile detention appeared to be creating criminals, not stopping them.

    So, unless you have read the paper and the summary is misrepresenting it, no, this isn’t because “only the worst and least amenable to reason juvenile offenders will be sent t o juvenile detention so of course they’re always more likely to committ further crimes”

  6. says

    OTOH, it figures that only the worst and least amenable to reason juvenile offenders will be sent t o juvenile detention so of course they’re always more likely to committ further crimes later aren’t they?

    One would think so. But in the PA scandal Ed alluded to, the judges were sentencing kids to private detention facilities for relatively minor offenses, ones that normally would have resulted in probation. Even first time offenders were given multi-year sentences in (privately run, of course) juvenile facilities.

    There’s no money in rehabilitating kids.

  7. Ben P says

    So, unless you have read the paper and the summary is misrepresenting it, no, this isn’t because “only the worst and least amenable to reason juvenile offenders will be sent t o juvenile detention so of course they’re always more likely to committ further crimes”

    There’s actually two different papers discussed in the article and in the post, one based in Florida and one based in Chicago. Only the full text of the Florida paper is available for free. This is it

    The thing that concerns me about the statistical analysis in the Florida paper is criminal history. The authors of the Florida study say they ran a regression analysis that relates to “individual demographic” and “criminal history.” The way they handled individual histories is interesting, but I’m not sure it fully takes into account that juveniles sent to detention facilities may have already had a progression of criminal acts.

    The abstract of the Chicago study makes no reference whatsoever to consideration of whether the juveniles were first offenders or repeat offenders or how their individual criminal histories were dealt with.

  8. says

    We’d do better if we replaced the sentencing part of the process with a computer. Or just a table. “Roll 2d20 saving throw….” Judges are way too variable.

  9. Ben P says

    One would think so. But in the PA scandal Ed alluded to, the judges were sentencing kids to private detention facilities for relatively minor offenses, ones that normally would have resulted in probation. Even first time offenders were given multi-year sentences in (privately run, of course) juvenile facilities.

    There’s no money in rehabilitating kids.

    Not necessarily.

    One step short of “Detention Center” is a range of facilities that a couple decades ago would have been rather euphemistically called “reform schools.” This is where children are sent, they are not free to leave, but are still attending school and usual receive inpatient level mental health services and counseling at the same time.

    Virtually all of these facilities are run by private contractors and are paid on a per-bed basis by either state or federal governments as well.

  10. says

    There is also the significant problem of kids being sent to juvenile detention because of problems related to mental illness. And unfortunately, Ben P. in out location, the “reform school” option is extremely limited. They have a very limited number of beds. There is a waiting list and a lot of kids end up in juvenile detention instead – where they do *not* receive anything approaching adequate mental health services. One child I know, who takes some rather serious psychotropics, wasn’t receiving his meds on a consistent schedule, much less the schedule he was supposed to take them on. This really fucked up his head and at one point he spit one of his pills at a guard. He got their version of solitary for that, lost other privileges and didn’t get his meds for three days. We have no idea if they would have started giving his meds to him later, because after three days without he rammed his head into a block wall, hard enough to crack his skull and was hospitalized.

    Another boy I know, a 15 year old with the mental capacity of your average seven year old, became physically and sexually aggressive when he hit puberty. His single mom, who is rather small and light weight, doesn’t have the strength to manage him. He tried to sexually assault his sister and his mother. He ended up with four back to back stints in juvenile detention, when what he really needed was inpatient mental health treatment. But juvenile detention was what was available. And after he got out the last time, his mother having been told that they couldn’t take him in again and she would just need to figure it out, his sister was removed from the home because it wasn’t safe for her to be around him.

    All in all, I have personally heard from eleven families about their mentally ill child ending up in juvenile detention. Five of them were kids with developmental disabilities and all of those kids were seriously traumatized by the experience. None of those kids received medications at the times they were supposed to, occasionally meds would be withheld due to behavioral problems. And none of them were ever put into the residential education center, as they like to call it here. Nor were they able to see their therapists, attend occupational therapies – nothing, but seeing a counselor who came through once a week and who had no prior relationship with them. And that, only if it worked out that he had time to see all those who needed it.

    Yup, most of them ended up in front of a judge, multiple times – except for the kids who had committed violent crimes – which was mostly the developmentally disabled kids, who have no capacity to understand whats going on. They got lectured by judges, as did their parents. In some cases, the judge involved wanted to offer help and tried to connect them with services, if they weren’t already. But there is only so much that can be done and instead of getting these kids real help, in some cases through residential treatment, we just throw them into juvenile detention, which will in turn just make things worse.

  11. D. C. Sessions says

    “Counterproductive” is a value judgment that depends very much on what your objective is.

    If, for instance, your objective is to keep those people in their proper place, Juvie appears to be a very useful tool for the purpose.

  12. says

    Virtually all of these facilities are run by private contractors and are paid on a per-bed basis by either state or federal governments as well.

    And so, just like with private juvenile detention facilities, all the incentives are in place to maximize occupants (profit) while minimizing the costs associated with things like, say, giving kids their meds consistently.

  13. says

    I was pleasantly surprised that this year Georgia passed juvenile justice reform intended to keep all but violent offenders out of lockup. And this came a year after prison reform bent on keeping non-violent offenders out of jail.
    Both were pushed by Gov. Nathan Deal, who, while running in a primary runoff against Karen Handel,* was lambasted as a crooked son of a bitch by Republicans who nonetheless advocated voting for him because they thought he had a better shot at defeating a relatively popular former Democratic governor.

    * The Karen Handel of Komen’s campaign to de-fund Planned Parenthood. Yes, we had that dingbat and the horse fucker running as Republicans last time. Handel, sadly, once was secretary of education and is among those likely running for U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss’ seat.

  14. Johnny Vector says

    Ben P, your comment about detention being more likely after multiple offenses is a good one. However, the Chicago paper is quite clear that they controlled for number of appearances, by considering only the first offense:

    First, we focus the analysis on the first juvenile offense, thereby limiting the sample to those with no history with the juvenile court system

    So I think that objection is answered.

  15. Pierce R. Butler says

    The juvenile “justice” system clearly needs a better way to sort out the really bad apples.

    Fortunately, many law-enforcement offices maintain a consultancy of psychics ready & willing to help out. Just ask ‘em!

  16. sezme says

    Hint : The best way to make sure you stay out of “juvie” = don’t do the wrong thing!

    Ditto criminals generally – Don’t want the time – then don’t do the crime! Don’t break the law arseholes!

    Nancy Reagan, is that you?

  17. says

    Ditto criminals generally – Don’t want the time – then don’t do the crime! Don’t break the law arseholes!

    That’s brilliant! Who needs police, judges, or prisons! All we have to do is tell people not to commit crimes!

    Why didn’t anyone think of that before?

  18. Ysidro says

    As I read this, I wondered how long it would take before some RWA type didn’t read through the article or the study and proclaimed “only the worst go to juvie”.

    Apparently not as long as I hoped.

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