Juvenile Justice Reform: Pathways to Desistance and What Works

by Benjamin Chambers

juvenile-justice-reform-Pathways-to-Desistance-coverBig news in the field of juvenile justice reform: initial results from the "Pathways to Desistance" research project are now available.  And the implications for juvenile justice policy — and opportunities for debate — are significant. 

Conducted by the MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change initiative, "Pathways to Desistance" is a large, multi-site project that follows 1,354 racially and ethnically diverse juvenile offenders over seven years and tries to answer the basic question we all want the answer to: what combination of sanctions and services helps kids stop re-offending, i.e., desist from crime?  

Specifically, it’s looking at youth who committed "the most serious felonies that come before the court, including murder, robbery, aggravated assault, sex offenses, and kidnapping" between the ages of 14 and 17. Over 90% of the followup interviews — over 25,000 of them — have been completed so far.

One key finding:

  • Most of the "serious" juvenile offenders in the study committed relatively few crimes or significantly reduced their criminal activity after their involvement with the justice system. But 8.5% continued to commit serious crimes.  The problem is, using the information usually collected by the juvenile court for disposition, there’s apparently no way to tell which youth will "desist" from crime, and which won’t. And there’s apparently no correlation between positive outcomes and locking kids up or sending them to long-term programs.

Here’s the good news. According to the report summary,

  • "Longer stays in juvenile facilities do not appear to reduce offending. However, continued probation supervision and community-based services provided after a youth is released do make a difference, at least in the six months following release."

Aftercare, in other words, is key. And here’s the biggest finding, from a Reclaiming Futures point of view:

  • "Substance use is strongly related to continued criminal activity in this group [of juveniles who committed serious crimes], and it makes sense to focus on this behavior for intervention. In fact, the study shows that treatment for substance use can reduce offending."

As the report goes on to say, "Results indicate that drug treatment significantly reduced substance use for about six months, and that this reduction was more than simply an effect of the adolescents being locked up in a controlled environment. Subsequent criminal offending also was reduced – but only when treatment included family involvement. The bottom line: ongoing substance use treatment for serious juvenile offenders appears to pay off, but the key is including family in the intervention."

This research will be the basis of a lot of discussion and further study in coming years in juvenile justice policy circles. I strongly urge you to download and read the 8-page summary of the initial results — it’s a very quick read. (Hat tip to Youth Today for bringing this to my attention.)