Most youth fare poorly after detention for juvenile offenses

NEW YORK - Most delinquent youth achieve few positive milestones in the years after their detention, especially if they are boys, Hispanic, or African American.

Researchers followed nearly 1200 boys and girls for 12 years after their detention in Chicago’s Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. They looked for positive outcomes in eight areas: educational attainment, residential independence, gainful activity, desistance from criminal activity, mental health, abstaining from substance abuse, interpersonal functioning, and parenting responsibility.

Twelve years after detention, only 22 percent of boys and 55 percent of girls were successful in more than half of these outcomes, according to a report in JAMA Pediatrics.

Dr. Linda A. Teplin from Northwestern University in Chicago and colleagues found that among the boys, 46 percent of non-Hispanic whites had achieved more than half the outcomes, compared with only 29 percent of Hispanics and 19 percent of African Americans. Results for girls did not differ by race or ethnicity.

As adults, the former delinquent boys fell into five broad categories: 24 percent were unlikely to have positive outcomes in any area; 28 percent were incarcerated; 21 percent were living independently but struggling; 6 percent were struggling family men; and 21 percent were functioning independently with positive outcomes in nearly all domains.

More than half of the former delinquent girls were at-home mothers (60 percent); 14.4 percent were unstable mothers with positive outcomes only in parenting responsibility; 10 percent were substance free but struggling; and 16 percent had positive outcomes in every domain except interpersonal functioning.

Minority boys were most likely to fall into the worst outcome classes, while there were no racial/ethnic differences among girls.

The researchers recommend that services for delinquent youth be expanded, especially for minority males, and they urge support for policies that make it easier for these youth to obey the law and to overcome barriers to social stability and employment.

Dr. Robert J. Sampson from Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, who wrote an editorial related to this report, told Reuters Health by email, “The police and courts alone are ill equipped to handle the needs of adolescents who are falling through the cracks of society’s support system. Constructing positive ‘turning points’ is central to breaking the reinforcing cycle of adversities that institutionalization can trigger.”

“Meaningful structural change will likely be long in coming, however, so how to prevent delinquency in the first place and how to steer delinquent youth onto a path of success after being involved in the criminal justice system are the immediate, challenging questions,” he writes in his editorial.

“At the very least, we should redesign the juvenile system so that it does not exacerbate existing inequalities,” he concludes. “Because juvenile detention has durable consequences for later development, and because today’s children and adolescents are tomorrow’s parents, there is urgency to breaking the stigma of a criminal record and the associated intergenerational cycle of compounded adversity.”

“I anticipated that outcomes would be dire,” Teplin told Reuters Health by email. “But I had not realized that so few youth could achieve milestones that are considered quite routine for most young people - - for example, establishing independent residence, being responsible for one’s children, steady employment.”

She continued, “People do not realize the impediments and cycle of disadvantage faced by youth who are detained. Once detained, they miss school. When released, they will have fallen behind in school, may become discouraged, and never catch up. Without a proper education, they can never find a job. And if they become involved in the adult justice system, there face great impediments by employers who refuse to hire prior offenders.”

“Our educational system is the root cause for many of these problems,” Dr. Teplin said. “Unlike other developed countries (France, the U.K., Australia), our school systems are funded by local tax dollars. Thus, the quality of your school is determined by your zip code. Overall, poor kids receive a much worse education than wealthier kids. Once they get in trouble with the law, they are on a one-way road.”

Dr. Teplin added, “There is something called ‘adolescent limited delinquency,’ meaning that kids may engage in delinquent acts, but then ‘grow out of it.’ But for poor kids, who may have fewer people in their lives who can rescue them, delinquency may begin a cycle of disadvantage that lasts throughout adulthood.”