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Pathways to Desistance Study: Longer Sentences for High-Risk Youth Do Not Increase Deterrence

Posted in 2015, Research & Policy Monday, 24 August 2015

By: Nicholas Bookout, CFYJ Fellow

In 2003, a longitudinal study, Pathways to Desistance, saw data collected for 7 jailpicyears on 1300 serious adolescent offenders from Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania and Maricopa County, Arizona. From this data, numerous criminology experts recently analyzed the data in an effort to learn more about deterrence – punishment as a threat to deter individuals from offending –   in high-risk adolescents.

This study contained multiple findings that have important juvenile justice implications. Most prominently, this study found that more severe punishments, such as correctional placement or longer lengths of placement, do not reduce arrests or offending in high-risk youth. In other words, severity of punishment has, as this study finds, no influence on deterring high-risk youth from later committing more crimes. Additionally, in a matched-pairs comparison of offenders (which controls for a variety of factors), this study found that when comparing those in placement to those given probation, there was not a deterrent effect.

Furthermore, the study found that many of the influences of punishment on risk-involved decision making are very individualized processes. Essentially, there is no formula or one set of policies that can prove to be most effective in deterring crime for large groups of individuals. As the writers of the study state, “This process does not operate in the same way for all offenders—policies that assume a ‘one size fits all’ approach will fail for some offenders.”

In a country where children are often given unnecessarily severe forms of punishment, including being tried and incarcerated as adults, this study makes it clear that increasingly punitive measures do not lead to increasingly decreased crime and recidivism. Accordingly, the authors of this study, “Advocate for shifting resources from prisons to areas that are related to offenders’ perceptions of risk.”

From this study it is clear that, more often than not, increasingly severe punishment for adolescents does not reduce crime. Therefore, it is no better for society – especially considering the astronomical costs of incarceration – to unnecessarily lock up our nation’s youth to, “Teach them a lesson.” Instead, we need to reform our juvenile justice system to take a more a rehabilitative approach to our nation’s youth. In doing so, we will not only save countless resources, but also countless lives.