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Benjamin Chambers: What Works with Serious Juvenile Offenders – Pathways to Desistance Study

Does the juvenile justice system really work?

Reading comments from readers on news stories about youth in trouble, you'd think the juvenile justice sysem was a system designed to mollycoddle dangerous kids, turning them into super-predators.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Among other reasons, we know this because of "Pathways to Desistance," a research study led by Edward P. Mulvey, Director of the Law and Psychiatry Program at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. (Dr. Mulvey and Carol Schubert contributed a post to us on their findings in April 2010.)

The "Pathways to Desistance" research study is a unique study of what works in the juvenile justice system. This large, multi-site research project followed 1,354 serious juvenile offenders for seven years. An informative brief on the study findings was released in 2009 by the MacArthur Foundation; now, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) has released another fact sheet, titled, "Highlights From Pathways to Desistance: A Longitudinal Study of Serious Adolescent Offenders."

Here's what the study found:

  • Most youth quit or reduce their offending over time.  Only 8.5 percent of the youth in the study persisted at high levels of offending. As Dr. Mulvey explains in the OJJDP fact sheet,

"Two factors that appear to distinguish high-end desisters from persisters are lower levels of substance use and greater stability in their daily routines, as measured by stability in living arrangements and work and school attendance."

  • Providing services and sanctions based on individual need -- factors including substance abuse, mental health needs, family background -- could be more effective than providing them based on severity of the crime and prior convictions. Surprisingly, the researchers found that the youth who persisted in offending and those who reduced their offending behavior got about the same kind and intensity of services.
  • In a related finding, the study found that incarceration did not reduce offending. In fact, for the subgroup of serious juvenile offenders who greatly reduced their offending after contact with the justice system -- who spent about 30 percent of the study followup period in institutional care -- incarceration actually increased their offending to a small, but statistically signifcant degree.

If locking them up didn't help, what did? Community-based services and probation supervision. As Dr. Mulvey writes,

"Youth who received community-based supervision and aftercare services were more likely to attend school, go to work, and avoid further offending during the 6 months after release, and longer supervision periods increased these benefits."

  • For many of these youth -- those meeting their definition of "serious juvenile offenders" -- substance abuse treatment is key, as the MacArthur Foundation brief makes clear:

"Levels of substance use and associated problems are very high in these young offenders. More than one-third qualify for a diagnosis of substance use disorder in the year prior to the baseline interview, and over 80 percent report having used drugs or alcohol during the previous six months. Moreover, the level of substance use walks in lockstep with illegal activity over the follow-up period: more substance use, more criminal offending."

Treating youth for at least 90 days, with their family members involved, cut both their substance abuse and their offending, at least during the six months after treatment.  (Tellingly, the sub-study this conclusion was based on, "Substance use treatment outcomes in a sample of male serious juvenile offenders," which appeared in 2009 in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, found that only 25% of the serious juvenile offenders in its sample received treatment that included family members. The study authors speculated that this might be partly because these offenders were being treated in secure institutional environments, rather than the community.)

In an age when every state is trying to find money to fund juvenile justice services, policy makers should be turning to this research to help them guide funding to what works in juvenile justice.

The above story is reprinted with permission from Reclaiming Futures, a national initiative working to improve alcohol and drug treatment outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system.

Coalition Responds to Cuts in Juvenile Justice Funding

The Obama administration’s FY 2012 budget proposes to significantly cut funding for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) and make the remaining funds available to individual states through a competitive process.

This proposal would eliminate OJJCP’s existing grants program, the only dedicated federal source to the states for juvenile justice system improvements.

The National Coalition for Juvenile Justice and its partners has responded to this proposal with a letter to the president.

Internet Crimes Against Children Deconfliction System Program Grant

Internet Crimes Against Children Deconfliction System Program Grant offers assistance to organizations looking for financial help to thwart  internet crimes against kids. The Internet Crimes Against Children Deconfliction Systems (ICAC) may be able to get help from OJJJDP through its grant program. This grant will award as much as $500,000 to help construct, maintain and house an Internet Crimes Against Children Data System (IDS). The grant's purpose is to assist law enforcement investigations with child exploitations, avoid conflict on data, and enhance the ability to share information among local, state and federal ICAC task forces. This grant is available to help enhance the ability of OJJDP to collect and aggregate information on child exploitation.

House Budget Cuts Juvenile Justice Funding But Doesn’t Say Where

The U.S. House funding bill passed Friday would cut juvenile justice programs by $191 million. Some $91 million of that is in earmarked programs, but it doesn’t tell the Office of Justice Programs where to trim the remaining $100 million.

"It’s weird that they left that out,” said Joe Vignati, the National Juvenile Justice Specialist on the Executive Board of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice. “If—and this is a big if — this becomes law, everybody will be clamoring and saying, ‘Cut this! Cut this!’”

HR 1, the Full Year Continuing Appropriations Act, now moves to the Senate where the bill is expected to change significantly. If an agreement is not reached on the budget by March 4, the nation could face a government shutdown.

Juvenile Sex Offenders [INFOGRAPHIC]

The OJJDP released a report titled "Juveniles Who Commit Sex Offenses Against Minors." The following infographic is a breakdown of some of the statistics from the report. What can you glean from this data? Is this a problem that needs more attention? How should these crimes be handled? Join the conversation on Twitter and or Facebook.

Juvenile Sex Offender Stats

Suburbs See Largest Increase in Teen Gang Activity

More kids are joining gangs than ever before and reports of gang violence are on the rise.  For the first time, gang activity has been reported in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, says a report by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Suburban areas saw the largest increase in gang activity at 22 percent followed closely by rural communities.  Part of the problem, according to the report, is the lack of gang awareness among community leaders, parents, and school.

The report, “Gang Prevention: An Overview of Research and Programs,” says that many kids join gangs for protection, respect, and money, among other reasons.  Gang members exhibit common risk factors that include antisocial behavior, alcohol and drug abuse, and mental health problems.  Almost all gang members were involved in previous delinquent acts.

The report also describes prevention and intervention strategies for kids at various levels of gang participation.  Kids at risk for joining gangs should be taught refusal skills while those already in gangs should join intervention programs.

Scared Straight! Graduate Plays Starring Role in Cold Case Crime

Angelo Speziale
Angelo Speziale

Angelo Speziale may be the most infamous graduate of Scared Straight! As a scrawny 16-year-old, he appeared in the original Scared Straight! documentary filmed at New Jersey’s Rahway State Prison in 1978.  Now he’s back--serving 25-to-life in Rahway for the 1982 rape and murder of a teenage girl who lived next door to him.

Proponents of “Scared Straight” claim the program literally scares kids away from a life of crime.  In a follow-up show called Scared Straight: 20 Years Later, Speziale echoed this, claiming the experience changed him.  Apparently not enough.  He was arrested for shoplifting in 2005 and a DNA sample linked him to the 30-year-old cold case murder for which he was convicted in 2010.  A New Jersey law enforcement source confirms Angelo Speziale is the same person who appeared in both documentaries.

Here is a clip from Scared Straight: 20 Years Later which aired in 1998. Speziale appears at 8:45.

Speziale may become a poster child for groups opposing A&E’s new series Beyond Scared Straight, who say the program is ineffective and does more harm than good.

scared_straight_seriesA petition by the Campaign for Youth Justice is calling on A&E to yank Beyond Scared Straight off the cable channel. The petition says the show is promoting “the spread of a noxious program” and may be in violation of federal law, citing portions of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s  [OJJDP] Compliance Manual.

The petition is also asking that A&E do a better job of educating viewers on the shortcomings of the “Scared Straight” approach. The show follows at-risk kids as they are confronted by prison inmates who try to scare them into turning their lives around.  About 300 people have signed the online petition and they are not alone in opposing Beyond Scared Straight.

Two Justice Department officials have written an op-ed piece describing scared straight programs as “not only ineffective but potentially harmful” to the kids involved.  The op-ed appears in Tuesday’s Baltimore Sun, written by OJJDP Acting Administrator Jeff Slowikowski and Laurie O. Robinson, from the Office of Justice Programs.  They say that, “when it comes to our children,” policymakers and parents should “follow evidence, not anecdote.”

As JJIE reported earlier this week, The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges is also calling on A&E to present the facts about Beyond Scared Straight. Last month juvenile crime experts told JJIE.org the show may generate more crime.

Courtesy of A&E
Courtesy of A&E

Beyond Scared Straight producer, Arnold Shapiro, has said he’s never read any of the studies, but claims the research is wrong.  He believes follow-ups are the best indicator of success with the “Scared Straight” approach and points to the success of kids from his original 1978 documentary, “Scared Straight!”  He’s apparently not talking about Angelo Speziale.

Amid this mounting criticism, one “Scared Straight” program in Rhode Island was suspended after administrators learned children as young as 8 were involved.  The Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth, and Family decided that Scared Straight techniques could be “traumatizing” for someone that young, according to the Providence Journal.

Despite what the experts say, public comments about the show appear mostly positive.  Comments posted at JJIE.org and A&E’s online discussion board run the gamut from desperate parents with troubled kids, willing to try anything, to get-tougher advocates who think the show doesn’t go far enough in confronting kids with the grim realities of prison.  Here’s a sample:

Dee: “I have a 16 year old nephew that is uncontrolable [sic] at this point.  He needs to see this first hand.”

Jalila Hood: “I am a deaf Single mom who raising my kids by myself they’re very disrespectful and out of control….i need that help especially for my son he will be 13 this year he has done shoplifting and hasn’t gotten caught yet?”

Foodcritic: “This show is too mild and they need to raise the stakes to wake these hoodlum kids up.”

JJIE staff actually tried to contact some of the most desperate-sounding authors by return email.  So far, no one has responded.

The controversy has not hurt Beyond Scared Straight.  The show set a ratings record for the A&E Network with 3.8 million viewers when it debuted on January 13.  “We could not be more proud to have undertaken this groundbreaking series,” Bob DeBitetto, President of A&E told the Hollywood Reporter, “and the audience response is extremely rewarding.

Kids Join Gangs for Protection, Respect & Friends, Report Says

There's some new nationwide research on why kids are involved in gangs and how to stop them from joining up.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention released its December 2010 report called Gang Prevention: An Overview of Research and Programs.

The report highlights why kids join gangs and how communities can best combat gang activity. The OJJDP found that not all strategies work. But, here are a few that do:

  • Parent and family involvement
  • Training teachers and parents to manage unruly young people
  • Providing education that teaches kids interpersonal skills

For some insight on how to rescue a teenager from a gang, check out the column from Sedgrid Lewis in Ideas and Opinions at JJIE.org.

Survey Finds Physical Bullying Far More Common Than Online Bullying

Kids are more likely to face a bully in person than online.   The 2009 OJJDP National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence surveyed almost 4,450 kids nationwide, between the ages of 10 and 17.  Here are some highlights:

  • 21.6% said they had been physically bullied.
  • 19.7% reported being teased or emotionally bullied.
  • Kids between the 14 and 17 were more likely to be harassed online.  7.9% of this group admitted being bullied online.
  • Boys were more likely to be bullied or threatened physically, where girls were more likely to be victims of internet harassment.

Free Webinar On New Way to Help At-Risk Teens

If you’re interested in providing community services for high-risk teen offenders, check out a free webinar offered by the Office for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

The webinar, called Court Coordination Program: Thinking Small May Be the Best Way to Accomplish Something Big, takes place January 6, 2011 at 3 p.m eastern.

The web conference is designed to help juvenile justice practitioners learn how to get the attention of a juvenile court judge and gain public and private agency assistance in helping youth.

Click here to register.