Recidivism in the Juvenile Justice System
Updated: Sep 15
Juvenile Justice is by nature an ethically complex issue; when a teenager commits a crime, society must make decisions about how to penalize and rehabilitate the offender, and the choices made have significant ramifications. We need to understand why a youth offender committed their crime, then provide them with the education and resources to make better choices in future situations and prevent re-entry into the criminal justice system. Above all, the question remains: does putting kids behind bars actually make our world safer?
Over 50,000 minors are currently held in American jails, prisons, and juvenile facilities, but most available evidence indicates that locking up teenagers does not reduce crime levels. While there is no official rate of juvenile recidivism nationally, state studies show that over half of youth offenders will be arrested within a year of release (1). Moreover, incarcerating low-level youth offenders can actually increase the rate of recidivism (2). Even the offenses themselves are not a good predictor of future behavior -- other factors like substance abuse are better indicators of recidivism risk (2).
If we want to help youth offenders change their behavior, we need to look at the challenges they face when re-entering their communities. The most common obstacles include unsafe or unstable housing, substance abuse, mental health disorders, and separation from family (1). In addition, youth offenders often face challenges when returning to a traditional school environment, making them more likely to miss class or drop out (1).
Multiple types of rehabilitation programs and interventions can be effective at improving the re-entry process and reducing the chance of future criminal activity. Group counseling and mentoring have significant positive effects, as opposed to discipline-based interventions, which increase recidivism (3). Mental health also plays a large role: cognitive behavioral treatment and the proper diagnosis and management of substance issues and psychological disorders are crucial in helping youth offenders successfully re-enter society (1).
The most effective ways to prevent recidivism in the juvenile justice system all share one key quality: they focus on support and rehabilitation rather than punishment and fear. Teenage offenders are still learning how to interact with their environment and other people in constructive ways. Providing youth with resources and opportunities on an educational, professional, and social level will help prevent recidivism and promote positive change.