Skip to main content

Longer sentences for youth do not improve public safety

Pathways to Desistance, a study of serious youth offenders, finds that long institutional commitments do not reduce recidivism and in fact can have the opposite effect.  The study follows over 1,300 youth convicted of serious felonies (inc. murder, robbery, and sex offenses) across the country over a seven-year period.

A September 2012 factsheet from the National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN) summarizes the latest findings of the study:

~ A youth's future likelihood to re-offend cannot be predicted based on their presenting offense.
~ Placing youth in long-term confinement has no effect on their rate of re-arrest.
~ Substance abuse issues can significantly increase the risk of recidivism; however, appropriate treatment reduces this risk.

These findings have significant policy implications for California's juvenile justice system.  For example, Proposition 21 (2000) requires that youth who commit certain serious crimes be directly transferred to adult criminal court.  However, as the researchers note, this sort of blanket policy makes little sense, as the data demonstrate their offense does not determine their risk level, and sending youth to the adult system severely limits their access to rehabilitative services.

In fact, according to the OJJDP, "most youth who commit felonies greatly reduce their offending over time, regardless of the intervention."  Given the results of this study, how can California rethink its approach to juvenile justice?

Currently, youth confined to California's youth correctional facilities serve an average of 35.8 months in the 3 remaining institutions.  During that time, they are isolated from their communities, distanced from their families, and provided minimal services in a congregate correctional environment.  Despite calls to realign juvenile justice services last fiscal year, California's District Attorneys were adamant that they need a long-term institutional option for "the worst of the worst."

However, that argument contradicts the research, which shows that longer periods of confinement have no effect on recidivism.  In fact, longer sentences may increase criminal tendencies by exposing youth to a criminogenic environment and limiting access to pro-social supports.  Not only are long institutional commitment expensive, they are also unnecessary, and an inefficient use of the state's scarce resources.

Fortunately, Governor Brown scaled back the jurisdictional age for housing youth in state correctional facilities from 25 to 23, eliminated the use of time-adds, and increased the county financial burden to house youth in state facilities in his July 2012 budget.  These measures are designed to reduce county reliance on unnecessary state incarceration for serious youth offenders, and to reduce the ineffective long lengths of stay.

California's counties must begin to embrace the lessons proffered by this research in order to maximize their juvenile justice resources.  It is not efficient or in the interests of public safety to rely on isolated institutional confinement for serious youth offenders.  According to the research, what does reduce recidivism among serious youth offenders is access to community-based rehabilitative services.  California can increase its capacity to serve serious youth offenders at the local level by exploring existing model practices demonstrated by several innovative counties.

Keywords: incarceration, Proposition 21, Selena Teji, youth

Posted in Blog, Juvenile Justice

California Stentencing Institute screenshot

California Sentencing
Institute (CASI)

Explore how California’s 58 counties send their residents to correctional institutions with interactive maps, charts, and downloadable data.

Connect with us

      YouTube

Contribute to CJCJ

Make a difference to youth and adults trying to get their lives back on track.

Join our mailing list

Get regular updates and news delivered to your inbox. We won’t share your information with anyone else.