Youth offenses and sentences predict little about recidivism

In September 2012, the National Juvenile Justice Network released data from the Pathways to Desistance study – a large, collaborative, seven-year project following approximately 1,300 youths after their convictions. Most of the juvenile offenders had been convicted of felony offenses, including murder, robbery, aggravated assault and sex offenses. The study’s major finding was that neither the nature of a crime nor the length of time served for it can effectively predict youth recidivism.

Researchers found that the type of offense or time served for it does not accurately measure the likelihood of recidivism because youth offenders vary considerably. As Edward Mulvey, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh and principal investigator on the Pathways to Desistance study, said:

“Just because they’ve done a certain type of offense doesn’t mean they’re on a particular path to continued high offending or more serious offending…Kids convicted of a serious crime seem to be very different, heterogeneous people.”

The study also found the following:

  • Substance abuse can significantly increase the risk of future arrests, while treatment reduces this risk.
  • Placing youth in an institution has no effect on their rate of recidivism.
  • Youth who have a more positive institutional experience are less likely to reoffend.

The study concludes that youth offenders need to be dealt with on a case by case basis. For example, state law should leave the transfer decision up to judges rather than automatically sending juveniles to adult courts for certain crimes. Additionally, youth should be placed in institutional settings less often and for shorter durations, and instead receive an increased level of community-based services, including substance abuse services.

You can read more about the Pathways to Desistance study and its methodology in the study description and fact sheet.