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: 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

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