Sometimes, Locking Kids Up Makes Matters Worse

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In an ideal world, correctional institutions should aim to rehabilitate young offenders. When this works, youth make gains in social capital that will reduce the likelihood that they will return to crime when they re-enter society. But as a new study shows, sometimes, these environments can do the opposite and function as schools for crime that facilitate “criminal capital” and encourage future offending.

In a study of over 600 serious juvenile offenders, my colleagues and I report in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology that institutions can expose juveniles to conditions that may actually help to increase their illegal behavior – and illegal earnings – when they are released. In fact, we found that the daily illegal wage rate was almost $190 after release and over a seven-year follow-up period. The most influential factors were the number of friends in the institution who have committed income-generating crimes (such as drug sales) and the length of the juvenile’s incarceration.

A related study by Uberto Gatti and his colleagues of several hundred boys residing in economically disadvantaged areas in Montreal also detected adverse consequences with extensive juvenile justice experience. Specifically, the more intense, strict, and constrictive the intervention, the worse off kids were with respect to their criminal career.

These results are troubling. Over 50,000 U.S. youths are placed in juvenile justice institutions each year and the financial costs of housing them are in the billions of dollars. From a rehabilitation and prevention perspective, institutions should be doing all they can to provide the treatment, services, education, and skills to help these kids turn their lives around. In some cases that surely works out, but unfortunately, in other cases, institutionalization has unintended consequences that makes things worse for the youth and for the law-abiding citizens they offend against. What, then, can institutions do to help guard against this criminal capital accumulation?

First, local governments and states that fund juvenile institutions, and the programming within them, must not do so on a shoestring budget, cutting corners here and there. Adequate funding to scale should be a high priority. Second, programs within institutions should be delivered by well-trained and caring staff. Moreover, youth should be matched to the appropriate programs that target their risks and needs. Third, institutions should do all they can to structure youth activities and limit the extent to which youths come into unsupervised contact with antisocial peers and opportunities. And we must not forget the importance of evidence-based prevention efforts and strategies that begin very early in life, such as Pre-K, Head Start, and Nurse-Family Partnerships, aimed at socializing children and reducing their likelihood of antisocial involvement.

Not doing a better job at funding juvenile justice prevention and intervention efforts will come at a hefty price tag. As my colleague Mark Cohen and I reported in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology, the value of saving a 14-year old high risk juvenile from a life of crime is well over $2 million. Thus, delivering effective prevention programs early in life and interventions aimed at rehabilitating juvenile offenders is essential.

There are many examples of evidence-based programming that are effective for incarcerated youth. Many of these efforts are cognitive-behavioral based that focus on altering and in some cases redeveloping social skills and decision-making processes, often in role-playing situations. These programs are not just about reducing the likelihood of recidivism, but also about getting juveniles the kinds of skills they need to succeed in education, employment, interpersonal relationships, and life.

Of course, correctional institutions are not meant to be schools in the educational and rehabilitative sense, but hopefully we can all agree that they should not be schools for crime either. Doing more of the former and encouraging less of the latter seems sensible enough.

Alex R. Piquero is Ashbel Smith Professor of Criminology and Associate Dean for Graduate Programs in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences at The University of Texas at Dallas. He is a member of The Huffington Post Contributor’s Network and The Dallas Morning News Contributors Network.

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