Matthew T. Mangino
August 14, 2015
Research into the adolescent mind and criminality has changed the way we punish young people. Brain development research has, in part, eliminated juveniles from the death penalty, life without parole for non-homicide offenses, and mandatory life without parole.
A new study of juvenile crime suggests that the severity of punishment — going to prison — has little impact on deterring crime.
Research developed through a project known as Pathways to Desistance examined serious juvenile crime and recidivism in multiple states over a significant period of time. Between November 2000 and January 2003, 1,354 young people from the juvenile and adult court systems in Phoenix and Philadelphia were enrolled in the study.
The enrolled youth were at least 14 years old and under 18 years old at the time they were found guilty of a serious crime. Each study participant was followed for a period of seven years after their conviction.
The research has been used in more than 80 studies including a recent Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention report, “Studying Deterrence Among High-Risk Adolescents.”
The report found no meaningful reduction in offending or arrests based on the severity of the punishment, such as correctional placement versus probation or longer periods of institutional placement. However, researchers found that the certainty of punishment can play a role in deterring future crimes.
In other words, an adolescent offender was more concerned with getting caught than with being punished. Among adolescents who commit serious offenses, “recidivism is tied strongly and directly to their perceptions of how certain they are that they will be arrested,” the report said.
Therefore, the report’s authors advocate for shifting resources from prisons to areas that influence an offender’s perception of risk — getting caught. Even if an offender is uncertain about the level of risk, the perception of risk may have an impact on deterrence.
That suggestion is controversial because it would require police agencies to substantially rethink how they deploy scarce resources.
More than two decades ago, Lawrence W. Sherman, currently the director of the Institute of Criminology of the University of Cambridge, England, acknowledged that it is not always possible to increase the certainty of punishment to adequate levels due to limited resources.
He argued that even though the overall level of punishment certainty may be low, the unpredictability variable — very high in some areas but very low in others — could still have a deterrent effect.
Sherman argued that random police activity provides vague or ambiguous information about the certainty of getting caught, exploiting the natural uncertainty about risk.
Although the overall level of detection may be low, creating uncertainty about specific detection probabilities with respect to certain areas, crime types, or other factors, may generate a larger perceived risk of getting caught as compared to a constant, low rate of detection.
The idea is that a little money can go a long way in preventing crime and, more particularly, juvenile crime. The time is ripe to look at alternatives to incarceration without breaking the budget. Random saturation of police patrols in high crime areas can provide enough variability that a potential young offender may become adverse to the perceived risk.
More recent studies have confirmed that this approach to policing, developing tailored responses to very specific recurring problems can be successful without a huge expenditure. The alternative is to build more prisons, with little chance of rehabilitating young offenders. Implementing situational prevention strategies that reduce police reliance on aggressive enforcement strategies like “stop and frisk” may also provide a much needed boost to sagging police-community relations.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.To visit the column CLICK HERE