Is Detention the Best Way of Helping Delinquent Youth?

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Is Detention the Best Way of Helping Delinquent Youth?


Jim Windell

           When I was running anger management groups with adolescents on probation to the juvenile court, I was constantly struck by the fact that in 20 years I was not aware of a single kid who was involved in any violent behavior either during or shortly after attending one of my groups.

          I never really thought I was a genius at teaching anger management skills, nor did I think of myself as a savior for these kids who had all been involved in some angry mischief before being court-ordered to come to my sessions. What I did think was that getting caught and being subject to some kind of intervention was perhaps the key to their better behavior.

          But a new report that comes from Association for Psychological Science Fellow Elizabeth Cauffman and her associates, may shed light on what was really keeping the adolescents I worked with on the straight and narrow.

          The report, published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, outlines 20 years’ worth of developmental science, including two large, long-term studies, both co-led by Cauffman, involving adolescent boys and men in early adulthood who become entangled in the justice system. 

          As the article points out, criminal behavior tends to peak in late adolescence and decline in early adulthood. And most youth, even those charged with serious felonies, become law-abiding adults. But several factors heighten individuals’ risk for ongoing offending, including:

  • antisocial traits,
  • substance use,
  • poor impulse control,
  • low expectations for the future,
  • perceptions of the justice system as unfair,
  • parental neglect,
  • school suspension or expulsion, and
  • community poverty and violence.

         The report finds that youth who are caught stealing, using illegal drugs, or committing other moderate crimes are far less likely to reoffend when they receive therapy, life-skills training, and other rehabilitative help rather than legal punishment – all of which is supported by a growing body of research.

          These findings underscore efforts in many states to implement programs that protect young people who engage in crime from reoffending and spiraling into a life of hardship. Increasingly, policymakers are recognizing that processing youth through the courts may cause long-lasting psychological harm at a critical time in their development.

          “If policymakers could take away one finding from the research summarized in this article, it would be that formal sanctioning, (e.g., court appearance) was never related to better life outcomes … for youths charged with moderately serious offenses,” the report states.

          The authors suggest that juvenile justice policymakers not only minimize formal processing and detention for youths who commit lower-level offenses but expand diversion programs and other alternatives to jail time. 

          “Adolescents are continuing to change and the response to their behavior should be developmentally appropriate,” Elizabeth Cauffman, Professor of Psychological Science at the University of California – Irvine, says. “How we respond to young people in the justice system matters. And if we want to improve community safety, we should use the science to guide both policy and practice.” 

          These reforms should apply not only to adolescents but to individuals transitioning into adulthood, as research has shown that the human brain continues maturing into a person’s mid and late 20s. The authors note that a promising concept is the young adult court (YAC), a specialized program for individuals ages 18-25. They are conducting a randomized control trial in Orange County to examine differences between young adults who are processed through a YAC versus traditional means. Young men in the YAC are supervised for at least 18 months by the court and specially trained probation officers. The youth receive help with life skills, employment, health, housing, and education. A judge can dismiss or reduce charges against those who complete the program. 

          “We hope to understand the extent to which involvement with the YAC is related to short- and long-term positive outcomes in behavior, mental and physical health, school and work, and other domains,” the authors wrote.

          This report suggests that sending kids who have committed a delinquent act to a treatment group, like the one I ran, will have better long-term results than locking them up in detention.

          To read the original report, find it with this reference:

Cauffman, E., Gillespie, M. L., Beardslee, J., Davis, F., Hernandez, M., & Williams, T. (2023). Adolescent Contact, Lasting Impact? Lessons Learned From Two Longitudinal Studies Spanning 20 Years of Developmental Science Research With Justice-System-Involved Youths. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 24(3), 133-161.


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