How Effective Is Juvenile Detention?

What impact does imprisoning young offenders have on their development and maturation?  A new study by economists Anna Aizer and Joseph J. Doyle, Jr. indicates that juvenile detention is not the deterrent desired by law enforcement officials, but actually increases the odds of recidivism while reducing the possibility that they will graduate from high school.

juvenile handcuffs croppedAcknowledging that kids being detained are going to be statistically different than those that have never been detained, the researchers sought to focus on the juvenile justice system in Chicago, and compared kids who received a sentence of detention with those who did not for similar crimes.  In these cases, the incarcerated youth were 13 percent less likely to graduate from high school. and 22 percent more likely to return to prison than those who were sentenced to alternative punishments such as home monitoring.  These recidivism rates for adolescents are significantly higher than those for adult prisoners.

Aizer and Doyle suggest a couple of reasons for their results.  First there is the disruption of time spent at school, which serves as a disincentive to complete the detainee’s education.  But there is also the development of friendships with other offenders behind bars, some of whom are more than happy to share their stories and their ideas.  In this way, juvenile facilities can become an incubator for adult criminals, and a laboratory for future criminal activity.

In many ways, the current juvenile justice system in the United States suffers from many of the same issues that plague the larger justice system—high expenditures, overcrowded prisons, and a failure to curb repeat offenses.  To this end, Justice Fellowship seeks to reform the justice system by promoting alternatives to incarceration when appropriate that will both reduce costs and help restore offenders as productive members of society.  To learn more about Justice Fellowship and the concept of restorative justice, visit their website at

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