Rewriting the Playbook for Reducing Juvenile Delinquency

Posted December 6, 2018, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Teenage boy with braces

There is a growing body of evidence that identifies effective interventions that get young people back on track. These developmentally appropriate strategies support justice-involved youth while also reducing juvenile delinquency. As the Casey Foundation explained in its report on transforming juvenile probation, lessons from this research are helping juvenile justice reformers and other stakeholders use state-of-the-art thinking to design interventions that promote personal growth, positive behavior change and long-term success for young people. These strategies include:

Offering support — not surveillance. Since the brain does not fully mature until age 25 or so, risky behaviors are commonplace during adolescence. Most youth grow out of delinquency without any intervention from the justice system.

Adopting a less is more approach for low-risk youth. Formal processing and probation supervision are counterproductive for youth who are at low risk of rearrests. The better option? Issue a warning and stay out of the way, according to research. For example: A 2013 meta-analysis found that low-risk youth placed in diversion programs reoffend 45% less often than do youth with similar case histories who face formal court processing or more intensive sanctions, like incarceration.

Nurturing maturity. Programs that boost psychosocial maturation through positive youth development opportunities and counseling — particularly cognitive behavioral approaches designed to improve problem solving and self-control — tend to reduce recidivism rates by a considerable margin. In contrast: Interventions that promote deterrence and discipline tend to actually increase recidivism while interventions that involve surveillance tend to have little or no effect on recidivism.

Incentivizing positive behavior — not punishing misbehavior. As Drexel University psychologist Naomi Goldstein and a team of colleagues wrote in the Temple Law Review: “Incentives are an important component of behavioral management systems because they help youths learn and implement new, desired behaviors. In contrast, although applying punishment often results in a reduction or suppression of certain conduct, this technique only inhibits undesired behaviors; it does not replace them with desired ones.” This echoes research, reported by the U.S. Department of Justice, suggesting that youth and adults on probation respond better to rewards and incentives for positive behavior than they do to punishments and sanctions for negative behavior.

By sharing information on intervention strategies that consistently reduce delinquency, the Annie E. Casey Foundation hopes to encourage local action, research, innovation and learning that will move juvenile probation and other facets of the juvenile justice system toward their full potential.

Read more on the Foundation’s Vision for Transforming Juvenile Probation