Deterrence Research is a Selling Point for Juvenile Justice Community Programs

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention recently published a report by several researchers on the groundbreaking “Pathways to Desistance” project, which tracked about 1,300 serious juvenile offenders from the Phoenix and Philadelphia areas for seven years after conviction. You can click here to find all of the work produced thus far from this project.

It is a study about deterrence among high-risk adolescents. The report barely acknowledges the existence of community-based juvenile justice programs. But in YSI’s humble opinion, it is all about those programs and their potential value.

This particular study used Pathways data to identify anything that had a deterrent influence on juvenile offenders. What, if anything, influences a juvenile’s decision to not commit a crime?

Here are the findings in a nutshell:

Incarcerating a serious juvenile offender has no deterrent effect when compared to a matched group of offenders who are placed on probation. Locking a juvenile up keeps that teen out of the community for a while, but does not put him or her back into that community with any heightened notion to stop committing crimes.

Further, among offenders who were incarcerated, the length of their stay had no measurable effect on deterrence. Whether it was a short or long stay in lockup, the experience did not, by and large, deter criminal behavior.

So how about the front end, then? How do arrests and policing strategies influence decisions on the commission of crimes by these offenders? The researchers relied on interviews, self-reported behavior and data to draw some interesting conclusions that we’ll discuss here in layman’s terms.

First, arresting youth before they have gotten away with a bunch of stuff has what authors call “the greatest potential to prompt perceptual changes that may curtail future offending.”

In other words: a kid nabbed the first time he commits a crime is less likely to chalk that arrest up to bad luck than a kid who has already gotten away with crime. Not the most helpful discovery in this report because of course no police officer can know what a kid has already gotten away with when faced with the prospect of a first arrest.

Researchers examined how changes in juveniles’ perceived risk of arrest factored into their behavior. If an offender’s perceived risk of getting arrested went up by 10 percent, for example, was there a corresponding decline in the likelihood of future offending?

The answer is “yes,” but only for offenders in the “midrange of the risk continuum.” For those offenders whose risk perception landed in the 30 to 90 percent range, the likelihood of offending declined as their perception of risk increased.

For the offenders on the low end of the spectrum, who saw little risk of arrest, there was no decline in offending even when their risk perception increased. Put more succinctly by the authors: “Greater sanction risks are not likely to deter offenders who do not deem such threats credible in the first place.”

A final important finding: Researchers found that for income-generating crimes (drug sales, robbery, etc.), “the deterrent effect of offender risk perceptions was enhanced for individuals who reported higher uncertainty in their perceptions near the lower end of the risk continuum.”

Translation: If serious juvenile offenders aren’t sure what law enforcement are patrolling for on any given day or at any given time, that can be a deterrent.

For these researchers, this suggests a controversial notion: “This finding argues for the introduction of randomization into police surveillance and patrol—changes that do not necessarily require any additional law enforcement resources.”

As mentioned, this study focused solely on arrest, and a comparison of probation versus incarceration. There is no information about any specific organization, program or model that has had a deterrent effect on serious juvenile offenders.

We asked one of the authors, University of Pittsburgh psychiatry professor Edward Mulvey, why that was. In short, it was way too hard.

“There is difficulty in categorizing what actually goes on,” Mulvey said. “We at one point tried to code institutional environments that way; what programs are offered in facilities, or in the community. We realized that unless we sent people into those places, it’s almost impossible to figure out what they actually do.”

And despite that, our takeaway from this research is that it can be a critical selling point for effective community-based juvenile justice programs.

See the conclusions of this research as one forest instead of several trees, and this is what you get. The deterrent factor of policing juveniles is most present when youth perceive the risk of arrest to be real, and are not sure where the heat is going to come from on any given day. On the other hand, locking those arrested up for any amount of time has no effect on whether they will go back.

So as far as deterrence goes, arrests of juveniles can be good and incarceration pretty much is not. And what might a system need more of if it wanted to arrest more and incarcerate less?

Probation? Eh. We aren’t talking about the juvenile population at large in this study; it includes only juveniles convicted of a serious offense. Giving a serious young offender just probation without any other intervention, when he would have gotten locked up otherwise, is risky business.

The answer is, of course, community-based programs. They are, at present, the hole in the center of the information donut when it comes to deterring future criminal behavior.

This study reveals some interesting things about the front and back end of the system. Hopefully someone will devote the same attention to measuring the middle.

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at