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Locking Up Kids is Counter Productive

Locking Up Kids is Counter Productive June 21, 2013

Brad Plumer at the Washington Post reports on a study of juvenile offenders in Chicago, some of whom were sent to juvenile detention and some of whom were diverted to other programs. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that kids who are sent to detention fare much worse and are more likely to commit crimes as an adult.

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…

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.

There are many alternatives to incarceration for all but the most serious offenders (rapists and murderers, for instance) that work considerably better. But remember, a lot of states have turned their juvenile detention facilities over to private corporations, who have a financial incentive to keep the number of inmates inflated. So much so that in Pennsylvania, they bribed two judges millions of dollars to send fresh meat their way.

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