A teen breaks the law, gets caught, is arrested and eventually goes to jail (specifically a juvenile detention center). What is it that keeps him from doing it all over again once he is released? Will a longer jail sentence set her straight? A new Department of Justice report says no.
Juvenile courts have always recognized their role in preventing teens from developing a habit of criminal behavior. One of the goals of juvenile delinquency courts is to reduce “recidivism” – the likelihood someone once convicted of one crime will commit another crime.
Since the 1980s, that goal has been paired with another: punishment. As incidents of juvenile crime rose, courts shifted their focus from keeping kids from reoffending to punishing them for their crimes. They began imposing more serious consequences, including longer jail times.
The theory was that the risk of severe punishments would keep teens from committing crimes in the first place. The hope was that the cost of the punishment would outweigh the gain received from the crime.
But a new study from the Department of Justice shows that theory doesn’t hold water. Researchers followed over 1,300 juvenile offenders over 10 years, interviewing them every six months for the first three years, and annually after that. They also did annual criminal records searches and interviewed friends or family members to test the accuracy of the young adults’ self-reports. Reviews of those records show that after a young person is convicted, putting him in jail does nothing more to stop him from committing another crime than if he had been put on probation.
It is not the severity of the punishment, but its likelihood that deters juveniles from committing crimes. If a teenager is relatively certain she will be caught, she is less likely to think it is worth the risk. If he thinks he can get away with the crime, it doesn’t matter how serious the penalty could be because it won’t apply to him.
That’s true regardless of punishment. In fact, for crimes that have less benefit to the offender, simply being arrested can be enough to prevent repeat behaviors. Even the perceived risk of arrest can be enough to persuade teens not to commit crimes.
The juvenile courts need to take a lesson from this report, and get back to their roots of prevention and deterrence. It doesn’t work to sentence juvenile delinquents to longer, harsher jail sentences to scare their peers away from crime. Instead, early intervention and increased risk of arrest (through supervised probation) will create a lasting impression and teach young criminals the gain just isn’t worth the risk.
Lisa J. Schmidt is a juvenile defense attorney at Schmidt Law Services, PLLC, in Ferndale, Michigan. She represents children charged with crimes in the juvenile and criminal courts. If you or your child have been charged with a crime, contact Schmidt Law Services today for a free consultation.