More than 1 million children and teenagers were arrested in 2014 on charges ranging from vandalism and drug violations to aggravated assault and murder. While that number represents a sizable reduction over previous years, the problem of youth committing crime still is a serious concern for policymakers, child advocates and the public. Government agencies nationwide are grappling with not just how to deal with the prosecution of children and teens but also how to help them make better choices and avoid a life behind bars.
Experts in neuroscience and juvenile justice have argued that the way youth offenders are treated by the juvenile justice system needs to change in response to evolving research on how adolescent brains develop. Groups such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science look at the issue through a scientific lens. A 2013 report from the National Research Council, “Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach,” suggests that legal responses to juvenile crime should take into consideration that an “imbalance in developing brains” is linked to a poorer ability to self-regulate and make decisions.
To that end, in 2000, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh led the largest longitudinal study on teenage criminals ever conducted. “The Pathways to Desistance” study followed 1,354 adolescents found guilty of a serious offense, usually a felony, in Phoenix and Philadelphia and researchers conducted 20,000 interviews over seven years.
A 2016 study published in Criminology and authored by three researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and the Truth Initiative, a nonprofit public health organization, builds upon that study. For “Differentiating Serious Adolescent Offenders Who Exit the Justice System From Those Who Do Not,” the authors used data from the Pathways study to identify a group of adolescents that was able to stay out of the criminal justice system. They wanted to see what, if any, factors contributed to their success. They identified 142 adolescents, or 10 percent of the full sample, then compared the successful group with a matched comparison group to test various psychological, social and environmental theories.
Study findings include:
- The adolescents who were able to stay out of the criminal justice system “showed significantly increased growth in temperance, overall maturity, and belief in the legitimacy of the law.” In other words, they “grew up.”
- The successful group had more engagement in the world of legitimate work instead of earning an income from illegal means such as dealing drugs — even though earnings per hour from legitimate work were substantially lower than earnings from illegal activities.
- Specific life events — for example, getting married, becoming a parent or earning a high-school diploma or GED — did not seem to influence whether or not study participants returned to criminal activity. These events occurred in both the successful group and the comparison group. A strong “turning point” event in the lives of the adolescents did not significantly influence behavior one way or the other.
This study suggests these successful teenagers had a more mature worldview, or “a perspective and increased awareness of what it takes to be an adult who can relate successfully to others and defer to the law/legal authority.” The researchers note that while getting and holding a job kept study group members from being re-arrested, they’re not sure why. It could be because the teens matured and experienced a change of attitude by becoming productive members of society, or because they were occupied and didn’t have time to commit crimes.
The authors also note that the successful group and the control group were very closely matched in terms of socioeconomic status, prior substance abuse and other factors. The fact that the two groups had much in common but that life unfolded very differently for them, with one group returning to crime and the other steering clear of the justice system, indicate that a complex array of psychological and developmental processes are at play in shaping life trajectories. Such factors are nuanced and not easily untangled, but researchers suggest they warrant further study. The challenge ahead, they state, lies in figuring out what type of interventions will accelerate such psychological and social development and in fashioning policies to intervene and rehabilitate young criminals.
Study authors conclude that “the results here contain a strong thread of hope.” Among other things, the findings show that the same developmental processes that are known to separate adolescents from adults are associated with getting out of the justice system. In other words, as the authors note, “It looks as if growing up is aligned with reduced criminal involvement.”
Related research: A 2007 study in the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, “Rational Choice and Developmental Influences on Recidivism Among Adolescent Felony Offenders,” examines how adolescents’ view of the criminal justice system and other factors influence their criminal behavior.
Keywords: juvenile justice, youth offender, juvenile delinquent, juvenile detention, recitivism