The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
April 20, 2011

Policy Options for Serious Adolescent Offenders

April 20, 2011

We are lucky to be at a moment when adolescent -- and general -- crime has declined for almost 20 years, to almost everyone’s great surprise. While the politics of crime policy is at a pretty low pitch is a good moment to consider two questions: What do we know about the likely trajectories and outcomes for serious adolescent offenders? And what should we do with these teens?

A few weeks ago, some provocative results were released from the largest contemporary U.S. study of serious adolescent offenders, called the Pathways to Desistance study. The report is from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

The key points, written by Edward Mulvey of the University of Pittsburgh, are worth quoting directly:

  • Most youth who commit felonies greatly reduce their offending over time.
  • Longer stays in juvenile institutions do not reduce recidivism.
  • In the period after incarceration, community-based supervision is effective for youth who have committed serious offenses.
  • Substance abuse treatment reduced both substance use and criminal offending for a limited time.

Each point is provocative in its own way. The first two points suggest that our angry gut reaction to “just lock them up” is not the answer. We have long known this about minor adolescent offending. What makes these results provocative is that they come from a study of youth who were all convicted of a serious crime.

The third and fourth points hint at what might be more effective than incarceration. It is worth knowing that this study did not evaluate particular interventions, so that the community-based supervision and the substance abuse treatments here are surely a mixed bunch, of varying quality. That, on average, they are still somewhat effective is a quite optimistic finding. Presumably, if we can increase the average quality of community supervision and drug treatment, and especially increase their use of evidence-based programs and practices, their effectiveness should only increase.

Adolescents, especially males, will likely always be the most active offenders in our society, and we will probably never stop re-thinking our policies toward them. But let’s keep these findings in mind at the next crisis point.  

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