Throwing children in prison turns out to be a really bad idea

The United States still puts more children and teenagers in juvenile detention than any other developed nations in the world, with about 70,000 detained on any given day in 2010. And as it turns out, this is very likely a bad idea.

Probably doing more harm than good. (The Washington Post)

A new paper by economists Anna Aizer and Joseph J. Doyle, Jr. offers strong evidence that juvenile detention is a really counterproductive strategy for many youths under the age of 19. Not only does throwing a kid in detention often reduce the chance that he or she will graduate high school, but it also raises the chance that the youth will commit more crimes later on in life.

This seems intuitive enough, but the problem is actually measuring the effect. After all, the youths who commit crimes and get tossed in detention in the first place are presumably different from kids who never get detained. So of course they'd have different outcomes. What we'd really want to know is whether detention itself is actually making things worse.

So, to figure this out, Aizer and Doyle took a look at the juvenile court system in Chicago, Illinois. The researchers found that certain judges in the system were more likely to recommend detention than others — even for similar crimes. That is, it's possible to identify stricter and more lenient judges. And, since youths were assigned to judges at random, this created a randomized trial of sorts.

What the researchers found was striking. The kids who ended up incarcerated were 13 percentage points less likely to graduate high school and 22 percentage points more likely to end up back in prison as adults than the kids who went to court but were placed under, say, home monitoring instead. (This was after controlling for family background and so forth.) Juvenile detention appeared to be creating criminals, not stopping them.

The authors lay out a couple of reasons why this would be. Going to prison can obviously disrupt school and make it harder to get a job later on. But also, as other researchers have found, many people who end up behind bars end up making friends with other offenders and building "criminal capital." Prison turns out to be excellent training for a life of crime.

The authors end with a few broad policy suggestions. They note that the United States now spends about $6 billion on juvenile corrections each year, despite evidence that other strategies might be more effective. Illinois, for instance, has started using electronic monitoring and well-enforced curfews as alternatives to detention for a number of nonviolent crimes (this doesn't work in all cases — murderers, say, still get sent to prison).

These types of alternative punishments, the authors note, can often do just as much to deter crime, but they don't do nearly as much long-term damage to the kids involved.

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