Study: Long-Term Juvenile Incarceration Fails to Decrease Reoffending Rates
By Brian Heller de Leon
Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice
A March 2011 study through the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) concludes that long-term juvenile incarceration does not decrease reoffending, and may actually increase recidivism rates for lower-level youth offenders. Researchers conducted more than 21,000 interviews over 8 years with more than 1,300 felony offenders ages 14–18 in the cities of Philadelphia and Phoenix. Researchers also interviewed parents and peers and examined arrest records.
Their findings and recommendations are very illuminating, especially in light of California’s current debate over the future of the Division of Juvenile Facilities, the state’s youth correctional facilities:
Finding #1: Longer stays in juvenile facilities do not reduce reoffending; institutional placement raised offending levels in even those with the lowest level of offending. In contrast to youth in institutional care, youth who received community-based supervision and aftercare services were more likely to attend school, go to work, and avoid further offending during the 6 months after release, and longer supervision periods increased these benefits.
Policy Recommendation: Reduce the rate of placement of serious adolescent offenders in institutions as well as the duration of these placements. Increase the level of community-based services to these adolescents.
Relevance for California: Serious youth offenders are currently placed in DJF facilities for an average of 36.2 months, although some youth have been in the institutions for as long as seven years. This is almost triple the average length of stay for juvenile facilities across the nation. Youth offenders return from DJF with an 80% chance of recidivating within three years, according to CDCR statistics. Only counties have the capacity to provide community-based services to youthful offenders.
Finding #2: Adolescents who have committed serious offenses are not necessarily on track for adult criminal careers. Only a small proportion of the offenders studied continued to offend at a high level throughout the follow-up period. In addition, serious juvenile offenders vary considerably in patterns of offending, risk factors, and life situations.
Policy Recommendation: A youth's presenting offense is a poor predictor of future recidivism or positive development. To increase the impact of justice interventions, promote policies that address adolescents' individual patterns of offending, risk factors, and needs; and target services to the highest-risk offenders.
Relevance for California: Individualized risk and need assessment must be a core component for all interventions with criminal justice programs. Best practice programs in counties like San Bernardino, Santa Clara, San Francisco, and Alameda prioritize individualized assessments and treatment plans.
Finding #3: Substance use is a major factor in continued criminal activity by serious adolescent offenders. Substance abuse treatment for young offenders reduces both substance use and non-drug-related offending if the treatment period is long enough and if families take part in the treatment with the offender.
Policy Recommendation: Increase the provision of substance abuse prevention services to serious adolescent offenders in both institutions and in the community, ensuring that the services are of adequate intensity and that they involve family members.
Relevance for California: Long-term substance abuse treatment that involves family supports is impossible to conduct in the remote settings of the three remaining DJF facilities. Families often have to travel as much as 10 hours just for occasional visits and are not included in the development of treatment plans. San Bernardino County manages many of their 707b serious youth offenders locally at their “Gateway Program”, which enables them to involve family members in rehabilitative programs for juveniles.
Long-term incarceration does not reduce the likelihood that serious youth offenders will reoffend. The evidence points to the contrary; that for lower-level offenders, longer stays in institutions will increase reoffending rates. Community-based interventions and services like substance-abuse programs are much more effective at improving long-term outcomes for youthful offenders. Sustained aftercare and supervision is also a critical ingredient in determining positive long-term outcomes.
California’s youth correctional facilities are fighting upstream against the overwhelming torrent of evidence that youthful offenders do better under local supervision and treatment. With no aftercare or reentry capabilities, the DJF system is a best an ineffective use of $220 million of taxpayer’s dollars, and at worse a institutional system that creates real damage and detrimental outcomes for youth offenders and the communities they return to. In light of the May 2nd LAO report showing an additional $3 billion revenue shortfall for California, the Governor's administration must close the failed DJF system, and use the budget savings to help protect K-12 education, disabled services, low-income families, and libraries and universities from even further cuts.
Brian Heller de Leon is the Policy and Government Outreach Coordinator for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. He has a background in community organizing, police-community relations, and the implementation of national best-practice strategies for youth and gang violence reduction.