Juvenile Justice System Breeds Adult Criminals

When boys are placed in juvenile delinquency centers, they are more likely to be incarcerated as adults compared to similarly troubled kids who avoid a brush with the system early in life, a new study suggests.

Researchers say their findings suggest the system itself creates a "culture of deviance" in a house of crime contagion, where young boys learn additional bad tricks that land them back in jail later.

"For boys who had been through the juvenile justice system, compared to boys with similar histories without judicial involvement, the odds of adult judicial interventions increased almost seven-fold," said study co-author Richard E. Tremblay, a professor of psychology, pediatrics and psychiatry at the University of Montreal in Canada.

While the study involved only boys in Montreal, the researchers note that the juvenile justice system in the province of Quebec has a reputation of being among the best.

"The more intense the help given by the juvenile justice system, the greater was its negative impact," Tremblay said. "Most countries spend considerable financial resources to fund programs and institutions that group deviant youths together in order to help them. The problem is that delinquent behavior is contagious, especially among adolescents. Putting deviant adolescents together creates a culture of deviance, which increases the likelihood of continued criminal behavior."

Tremblay and colleagues analyzed data on 779 boys from 53 schools in poor neighborhoods. The boys were interviewed every year from age 10 to 17.

By their mid-20s, some 17.6 percent of participants ended up with adult criminal records including homicide (17.9 percent); arson (31.2 percent); prostitution (25.5 percent); drug possession (16.4 percent) and impaired driving (8.8 percent).

The results are detailed in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

Tremblay said there are two potential solutions:

"The first is to implement prevention programs before adolescence when problem children are more responsive," he said. "The second is to minimize the concentration of problem youths in juvenile justice programs, thereby reducing the risk of peer contagion."

The study was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and other organizations.

Live Science Staff
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