Certainty, Not Severity, of Punishment

Juvenile Law Center,

It seems like a long time ago, but in the punitive, get-tough-on-kids period of the early-to-mid 1990s, state legislators across the country asserted that being tried as adults would deter teens from committing crimes. Juvenile justice practitioners—and parents of teenagers—scoffed. Nevertheless, legislators claimed that policies that seemed to deter adults from offending would also work with kids.

The federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has issued a Bulletin that debunks the deterrence thinking of that “kids are adults” era. “Studying Deterrence Among High-Risk Adolescents” (August 2015) reports on the Pathways to Desistance Study. Launched by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice, the longitudinal Pathways study concludes that “among serious adolescent offenders” there was “no meaningful reduction in offending or arrests in response to more severe punishment.” (For certain types of offenders and offenses, a belief in certainty of punishment may provide a slight increase in deterrence.)

The Pathways study emerged from the Research Network whose findings on reduced culpability of adolescents led to the end of the juvenile death penalty and other severe adult sentences. The U.S. Supreme Court, when it ended the juvenile death penalty in Roper v. Simmons (2005), said:

As for deterrence, it is unclear whether the death penalty has a significant or even measurable deterrent effect on juveniles, as counsel for the [state] acknowledged at oral argument. . . .  [T]he absence of evidence of deterrent effect is of special concern because the same characteristics that render juveniles less culpable than adults suggest as well that juveniles will be less susceptible to deterrence. . . .

The Pathways findings support today’s bipartisan movement to reduce incarceration of adolescents. They are also the focus of Juvenile Law Center’s monograph, Ten Strategies to Reduce Juvenile Length of Stay, which draws from a 50-state review of state statutes, conversations with national stakeholders and decision-makers, and input from preeminent researchers and scholars in the field. Ten Strategies aims to start a deeper conversation about changing state policies that lead to long stays in juvenile facilities. Those policies not only have little impact on reducing youth crime, but may actually make it worse.

Read the study here.


Image credit: "341" by Elvert Barnes licensed under CC Attribution-Sharealike 2.0.