Michigan has more reasons now than ever before to consider juvenile justice reform. Something to add to the list: a report released this week by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The report zeroes in on what deters kids from committing crimes in the first place. Most of what we know about recidivism is based on adults. Very few studies have been done with juveniles – until now.
Pathways to Desistance is a national study that followed over 1,300 serious juvenile offenders for seven years after being convicted. The study measures whether the punishment handed out to these kids – probation, jail time, etc. – is effective in changing their behavior. One way it does this is by tracking whether kids who committed felony-level crimes go on to re-offend in the future.
When it comes to handing out harsh sentences, Michigan is near the top of the list. Michigan has the second-highest number of juveniles locked up in prison for life. We are one of few states that automatically charge all 17-year-olds as adults. Plus, Michigan is still subjecting kids to solitary confinement. One of the goals behind these punishments is to prevent teens from breaking the law knowing their consequence will be more severe.
But it doesn’t work that way at all, says the DOJ. No matter how severe a punishment is, the chance of getting caught is a much more influential factor for teens when it comes to recidivism. Certainty of punishment is more effective than severity.
Institutionalizing juveniles actually has the opposite effect: it increases the likelihood of reoffending upon release. In the study, kids removed from their community averaged 2.5 more new arrests per year compared to those on probation. Locking up kids actually increases crime, instead of preventing it.
According to the report, just getting arrested is enough to prevent some teens from breaking the law again. What happens after that doesn’t matter as much. Whether a 17-year-old is sentenced to nine months probation or nine months in a locked cell, the effect on their future behavior is about the same.
Unless, of course, we are talking about the psychological, financial, or societal impact of incarcerating kids. Compared to community-based juvenile justice interventions, the impact doesn’t even begin to compare.