Updated: Nov 3
For decades, I have attempted to gain a clearer understanding of the process of “delinquency
devolution,” moving from self-examination to the analysis of other former juvenile offenders
who have conquered their past delinquent behaviors.
Some of what I’ve learned about reducing juvenile crime and violence and reclaiming delinquent youth comes from studying 1,000 adults who were adjudicated delinquent by the juvenile court. Here is some of what I learned about the adult outcomes of these former juvenile offenders and why early intervention can save delinquent youth from a life of crime.
About 41% had at least one known adult conviction, the remaining 59% had no adult convictions.
Those who committed an offense when they were 12 or younger usually had their cases dismissed or handled informally.
The 12 or younger group were most likely to be repeat offenders, to become violent, and to be convicted as adults.
Regardless of age, race, gender, or reason for referral, the sooner the court officially intervened, the lower the severity and frequency of future offenses, rate of recidivism, and potential to be convicted as an adult.
Probation and placement produced similar results in reducing the severity and frequency of future offenses, rate of recidivism, and potential to be convicted as an adult.
Dispositions from 12 to 18 months proved most effective in reducing the severity and frequency of future offenses, rate of recidivism, and potential to be convicted as an adult.
Delinquency and crime are dynamic behaviors that develop over time. The initial delinquent act seldom is assault or murder; rather, status offenses (noncriminal acts that are considered a law violation only because of a youth's status as a minor) and property offenses usually precede crimes against people. When not dealt with swiftly and appropriately, minor and occasional delinquent acts tend to increase in severity and frequency.
Conversely, when timely and decisive action is taken, and when the activities of delinquent
youth are monitored closely for an extended period of time, juvenile violence is reduced and
delinquent youth are reclaimed.
There is a growing body of evidence that early intervention by educators, correctional
professionals, treatment staff and mentors can have profound impacts on the course of future
criminal or prosocial behavior. In resilience research, this is called “altering the trajectory of
Children and teens first identified by their delinquent behavior are at a crucial turning point, and how schools and community agencies respond may determine the direction or trajectory of their lives for years to come. Our challenge is to change risk trajectories into pathways paved with greater possibilities for positive outcomes.
Instead of focusing on punishing juveniles whose behaviors have progressed to crime and
violence, would it not make more sense to emphasize early intervention?
Is it not time to develop a science of juvenile corrections whereby it is possible to know what
programs and policies work with whom and why?
We must set higher goals. The challenge is not just to lessen recidivism, but to build strength and resilience in all of our at-risk youth.*