Researchers reported years ago that a major longitudinal study of serious adolescent offenders showed the severity of punishments had little effect on their recidivism rates. The researchers also found that teenagers who commit serious crimes do respond to the threat or risk of sanctions, though not in a one-size-fits-all way, says the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. In a new report from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, researchers say the findings point to the need to devote resources to change risk perceptions, rather than prisons. “Studying Deterrence Among High-Risk Adolescents,” is one of several OJJDP bulletins based on research from “Pathways to Desistance,” a study that followed more than 1,300 young offenders for seven years after court involvement.
The resulting research found no meaningful reduction in offending or arrests due to more severe punishment, such as correctional placement versus probation or longer periods of institutional placement, the researchers said. It did find that the certainty of punishment can play a role in deterring future crimes. Among adolescents who commit serious offenses, “recidivism is tied strongly and directly to their perceptions of how certain they are that they will be arrested,” the report said. Edward Mulvey, principal investigator on the Pathways study, said the idea that adolescents respond to the certainty of punishment, not severity, has found an audience with some policymakers. They are asking whether states should have to justify why the criminal justice system should hold an adolescent offender for a long time. “It's switching the presumption that kids should be in treatment for 'as long as it takes,'” he said.