Are Juvenile Prisons Actually Schools for Crime?

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Correctional institutions should aim to rehabilitate young offenders. When this works, youth make gains that will reduce the likelihood that they will return to crime when they re-enter society. A new study shows that sometimes these environments can do the opposite and function as schools for crime that facilitate “criminal capital” and encourage future offending, criminologist Alex Piquero of the University of Texas at Dallas writes in the Huffington Post. In a study of over 600 serious juvenile offenders, Piquero and colleagues report in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology that institutions can expose juveniles to conditions that may actually help to increase their illegal behavior when they are released. The study found that the daily illegal wage rate was almost $190 after release and over a seven-year follow-up period.

The most influential factors were the number of friends in the institution who committed income-generating crimes (such as drug sales) and the length of the juvenile’s incarceration. A related study by Uberto Gatti and colleagues of several hundred boys residing in economically disadvantaged areas in Montreal also detected adverse consequences with extensive juvenile justice experience. The more intense, strict, and constrictive the intervention, the worse off kids were with respect to their criminal career. Piquero said the studies’ results are troubling. Some 50,000 U.S. youths are placed in juvenile justice institutions each year at a cost of several billion dollars.

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