Teen incarceration leads to less school, more crime

"Some judges are more likely to have children placed in juvenile detention than others, but it's effectively random which judge you get," said study co-author Joseph Doyle.

By Brooks Hays

BOSTON, June 9 (UPI) -- If you want troubled teens to shape up and stay in school, new research suggests jail isn't the ideal strategy. According to a new study, students who spent time in juvenile detention were less likely to finish high school and more likely to end up in prison later on in life.

On the surface, it doesn't sound like much a revelation. A bad seed is a bad seed, a skeptic might argue.


But the latest study, conducted by economists at the MIT Sloan School of Management, accounts for the bias. Researchers say they've isolated the effects of juvenile detention by honing in on a group of very similar teens -- teens whose legal fates were decided on the whims of local judges, not necessarily on the merits of their character.

"Some judges are more likely to have children placed in juvenile detention than others, but it's effectively random which judge you get," study co-author Joseph Doyle explained in a press release. "Some kids get a judge who will place them in juvenile detention, other ones get a judge who will be less likely to do so, and comparing the outcomes of the kids across the judges, we can actually say what the causal outcome is of placing the kids in juvenile detention."


By comparing seemingly similar teens -- all of whom were guilty of offenses that offered judges leeway in determining punishment -- researchers showed that time spent in juvenile detention was linked to less time in school and more trouble later. The correlation was especially strong for those around the age of 16 at the time of their sentencing.

In analyzing the outcomes of more than 35,000 juvenile offenders in Chicago over a ten-year period, researchers found that a juvenile detention sentence lowered the average graduation rate by 13 percent and boosted the chance of adult incarceration by 23 percent.

"The kids who go to juvenile detention are very unlikely to go back to school at all," Doyle said. "Getting to know other kids in trouble may create social networks that might not be desirable. There could be a stigma attached to it, maybe you think you're particularly problematic, so that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"It would be great to see more research like this done in other locations with different criminal justice systems, and see if the results continue to hold."

The work of Doyle and lead author Anna Aizer was published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics.


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