Does Juvenile Justice Actually Work?

June 11th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

The tragic saga of Kalief Browder, the 22-year-old ex-Rikers Island inmate who hanged himself on Saturday, has brought national attention to the problems that can arise with the way we incarcerate teenagers.

Browder's family and lawyers contend that his time in Rikers, where he endured hundreds of days of solitary confinement and abuse from inmates and guards, contributed to his mental instability after he was released. The case seems extreme, but it is likely illustrative of the traumatic experiences many young people face both during and after getting locked up, which raises the question: what is the efficacy of juvenile incarceration? 

In terms of what could be called rehabilitative justice, the answer could be: not so great. According to new research from scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the effect of juvenile incarceration on teens later in life is decidedly negative compared with those who avoided serving time for similar crimes. "We find that kids who go into juvenile detention are much less likely to graduate from high school and much more likely to end up in prison as adults," Joseph Doyle, an MIT economist and co-author of the paper detailing the research told MIT News.

Researchers looked at 35,000 Illinois teenagers over a 10-year period to examine long-term effects of juvenile incarceration, finding that high school graduation rates dropped by 13 percent, and adult incarceration increased by 23 percent for youths locked up. Doyle noted that because researchers examined thousands of cases, across which different judges relied on individual interpretations of the law, the study was a "natural experiment" that painted a balanced picture of juvenile justice and its long term effects. "We think this is some of the first real causal evidence on the effects of juvenile detention on kids' outcomes," he said. 

Doyle remarked that time in juvenile lock-up can deter kids, especially around the age of 16, from returning to school once out, and also exposes them to a potentially negative social network of other delinquents. That, he said, could contribute to higher rates of reoffending later on. "There could be a stigma attached to it, maybe you think you're particularly problematic, so that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy." 

It's important to note that the study simply looked at an isolated decade in one state, which is just one iteration of an ever-shifting justice system. But recent research from elsewhere around the country backs up the MIT study's findings.  

Perhaps surprisingly, Texas's juvenile justice system has become a national leader in their approach to rehabilitating minors who are incarcerated. Before 2007, the state's system was racked with widespread abuse and mistreatment of minors incarcerated in huge state-run lock-ups. But a shift over the past decade to county-run centers and probational programs has dramatically shaken things up––in a good way. 

In a study by the Council of State Governments Justice Center published in January, researchers found that the reforms had increased the efficacy of the state's juvenile system by a startling degree. Researchers looked at more than 1.3 million individual case records to determine that the transition to community oriented juvenile programs since 2007––lower security detention centers closer to home, probational programs––both decreased populations in state-run facilities by 66 percent and cut juvenile arrest rates by close to 33 percent. The same study also showed that juveniles kept in state lock-ups were 21 percent more likely to reoffend, and three times as likely to commit serious crimes down the road than their counterparts in alternative facilities and programs. 

Both of those studies build on even more research finding similar conclusions. A Pew report in April found that reduced sentences and community-based treatment programs for juveniles were more effective than locking them up in correctional facilities, while a study examining adolescent offenders in Arizona and Pennsylvania found that locking them up didn't produce better recidivism results than probational programs. 

Browder's case was different in that he was automatically sent to Rikers due to a New York law that treats 16 and 17-year-olds as adults. Nonetheless, his case highlights a need to address an obvious lapse in our understanding of the efficacy of incarcerating minors. As more and more research comes to the fore, states could see the benefits of reduced reliance on traditional juvenile justice programs, which could have far-reaching effects on those who must go through them.