Years after juvenile detention, adults struggle, study finds

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By Jeremy Loudenback

Children who have been admitted to a juvenile detention center often struggle with a range of issues years after being detained, according to results from a study published in JAMA Pediatrics.

The longitudinal study affords a rare look at how youth who experienced juvenile detention fared in terms of eight positive outcomes five and 12 years after detention.

The eight domains included the following: educational attainment, residential independence, gainful activity, desistance from criminal activity, mental health, abstaining from substance abuse, interpersonal functioning, and parenting responsibility.

A team of researchers from Northwestern University tracked more than 1,800 youth who were admitted to the Cook County Detention Center in Chicago from 1995 to 1998. The average of youth of these youth was about 15 years old.

In interviews both five and 12 years after detainment, the study attempted to determine if these youth had attained age-appropriate psychosocial outcomes in the years after detention, and how much these outcomes varied by race and sex.

According to analysis, only 21.9 percent of males and 54.7 percent of females had attained positive outcomes in the eight domains. Of all groups surveyed, African Americans were the least likely to achieve positive outcomes in the years after detention.

Robert Sampson, the Harvard sociologist who has written about both life-long trajectories of delinquent youth and spatial inequality in Chicago, wrote an editorial comment on the study in the same issue of JAMA Pediatrics. The long-term consequences of detention for delinquent youth, or “the juvenile equivalent of re-entry among ex-prisoners,” remains a topic of little research, according to Sampson.

“Juvenile detention has operated in the shadow of adult incarceration,” Sampson wrote.

In their study, the Northwestern researchers say that longitudinal studies of youth incarcerated in juvenile facilities have generally focused on recidivism, rather than on how youth adjust to life after returning to their communities. They argue that pediatric health care professionals have a role to play in promoting psychosocial health among these youth.

“To improve outcomes, pediatric health care professionals should recognize the importance of psychosocial health, partner with on-site psychosocial services in their practices, and facilitate access to services in the community,” the researchers wrote.

3 responses

  1. Excellent article, Jeremy! We should think too about all the young people under 25 who also are still in the process of brain development and the effect of incarceration on them. It upsets me how we destroy a life and a family in the name of justice but even if people don’t care about that, what about the cost to our society? Thank you for bringing awareness through your articles – so needed!

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  2. This is interesting to me since I work in the juvenile justice system.
    It’s important to note that sweeping changes have been made to the juvenile justice system since the date range this report covers. Juveniles definitely need better treatment than ones aimed at adults, not in the shadow of adult incarceration.

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  3. Correlation does not equal causation, but yes, juvenile detention is not a good solution to the issues that have brought these young people in to contact with the justice system. The poor outcomes more likely reflects the supports (or lack-thereof) these kids were provided… home life, poverty, etc. likely more telling than the simple fact they were in detention.

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