Juvenile Incarceration and Later Criminal Activity

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For juveniles on the margin of incarceration, detention leads to both a decrease in high school completion and an increase in adult incarceration.

In 2010, there were 70,792 incarcerated juveniles in the United States, a rate of 2.3 per 1,000 aged 10-19. Including those under correctional supervision, the United States has a juvenile corrections rate that is five times higher than the next highest country. In a life-cycle context, incarceration during adolescence may interrupt human and social capital accumulation at a critical moment, leading to reduced future wages and further criminal activity. More generally, interventions during childhood are thought to have greater impacts compared to interventions for young adults due to propagation effects. Juvenile incarceration is also expensive, with expenditures on juvenile corrections totaling $6 billion annually in the United States, and the average (direct) cost of incarcerating a juvenile equivalent to $88,000 for a 12-month stay.

In Juvenile Incarceration, Human Capital and Future Crime: Evidence from Randomly-Assigned Judges (NBER Working Paper No. 19102), authors Anna Aizer and Joseph Doyle, Jr. estimate the effects of juvenile incarceration on human capital accumulation, as measured by high school completion and recidivism as an adult. The policy analysis of juvenile incarceration hinges in part on whether it enhances human capital accumulation or deters future crime and incarceration.

The study finds that for juveniles on the margin of incarceration, detention leads to both a decrease in high school completion and an increase in adult incarceration. The authors point out that there are a number of alternatives to juvenile incarceration. For example, Illinois has an array of such policies, including electronic monitoring and well-enforced curfews. Indeed, these substitutes for juvenile incarceration have been growing in popularity. The authors' results suggest that their continued expansion could increase high school graduation rates and reduce the likelihood of adult crime still further.

The authors used a unique source of linked administrative data for a period of more than 10 years that covered over 35,000 juveniles who came before a juvenile court in Chicago, Illinois. These data were linked to both public school data for the same city and adult incarceration data for the same state to investigate effects of juvenile incarceration on high school completion and adult imprisonment.

To consider the full set of costs and benefits of juvenile incarceration policies, the authors point out, one must also consider the potential reduction in crime due to the incapacitation effect of incarceration as well as the deterrent effects of strict punishment on the criminal activity of other youths. They note that recent evidence suggests that juveniles' criminal propensity is largely unaffected by penalties, which implies that this may be of second-order importance compared to the large decrease in high school completion and increase in adult incarceration associated with juvenile incarceration.

--Les Picker