Juvenile Incarceration Linked to More Crime

Young Offenders Who Serve Time Finish School Less Often

A prisoner behind bars with hands cuffed
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Juvenile offenders who are incarcerated for their crimes are more likely to have significantly worse outcomes in their life than youngsters who commit the same crimes, but receive some other form of punishment and are not incarcerated.

A study of 35,000 Chicago juvenile offenders over a 10-year period by economists at the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management found substantial differences in outcomes between kids who were incarcerated and those who were not sent to detention.

Those who were incarcerated were much less likely to graduate from high school and much more likely to wind up in prison as adults.

A Deterrent to Crime?

One might think that it would be a logical conclusion that teens who commit crimes bad enough to be incarcerated for will naturally be more likely to drop out of school and wind up in adult prison, but the MIT study compared those juveniles with others who committed the same crimes but happened to draw a judge who was less likely to send them to detention.

Approximately 130,000 juveniles are incarcerated in the United States each year with an estimated 70,000 of them in detention on any given day. The MIT researchers wanted to determine if jailing juvenile offenders actually deterred future crime or it disrupted the child's life in such a way that it increases the likelihood of future crime.

In the juvenile justice system, there are judges who tend to hand out sentences that include incarceration and there are judges who tend to mete out punishment that doesn't include actual incarceration.

In Chicago, juvenile cases are randomly assigned to judge with different sentencing tendencies. The researchers, using a database created by the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago looked at cases in which judges had wide latitude in determining sentencing.

More Likely to End Up in Prison

The system of randomly assigning cases to judges with different approaches to sentencing set up a natural experiment for the researchers.

They found that juveniles who were incarcerated were less likely to return to high school and graduate. The graduation rate was 13% lower for those who were jailed than offenders who were not incarcerated.

They also found that those who were incarcerated were 23% more likely to end up in prison as adults and more likely to have committed a violent crime.

Teen offenders, especially those around age 16, were not only less likely to graduate from high school if they had been incarcerated, but they were also less likely to return to school at all.

Less Likely to Return to School

The researchers found that incarceration proved to be so disruptive in the juveniles' lives, many don't return to school afterward and those who do go back to school are much more likely to be classified as having an emotional or behavior disorder, compared with those who committed the very same crimes, but weren't jailed.

"The kids who go to juvenile detention are very unlikely to go back to school at all," said MIT economist Joseph Doyle in a news release. "Getting to know other kids in trouble may create social networks that might not be desirable. There could be a stigma attached to it, maybe you think you're particularly problematic, so that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."

The authors want to see their research duplicated in other jurisdictions to see if the results hold up, but the conclusions of this one study seem to indicate that incarcerating juveniles does not act as a deterrent to crime, but actually has the opposite effect.


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Montaldo, Charles. "Juvenile Incarceration Linked to More Crime." ThoughtCo, Jul. 30, 2021, thoughtco.com/juvenile-incarceration-linked-more-crime-972253. Montaldo, Charles. (2021, July 30). Juvenile Incarceration Linked to More Crime. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/juvenile-incarceration-linked-more-crime-972253 Montaldo, Charles. "Juvenile Incarceration Linked to More Crime." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/juvenile-incarceration-linked-more-crime-972253 (accessed June 3, 2023).