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Juvie Just Makes Everything Worse

Doing time in juvenile detention lowers high school graduation rates and raises adult incarceration rates, economists find.
(Photo: David E Waid/Shutterstock)

(Photo: David E Waid/Shutterstock)

The United States puts a lot of people behind bars. That includes kids; about 70,000 adolescents aged 10 to 19 are in detention on any given day. In theory, juvenile detention is supposed to do those kids some good, and maybe even put them on a path toward a better life. In reality, a recent study shows, imprisoning adolescents leads to lower high school graduation rates and more prison—often for more violent crimes—later in life.

Around 2.2 million people sit in U.S. jails and prisons right now, more than any other country in the world, and more per capita than any country other than Seychelles, an island nation of fewer than 100,000 people, according to International Centre for Prison Studies statistics. Our juvenile system is not much different. In America, around one in 400 kids are in prison, which is five times higher than the next highest detention rate. But if we're putting all those children under lock and key for the sake of their own futures, is it doing any good?

The answer is a resounding no, according to Anna Aizer, an economics professor at Brown University, and Joseph Doyle, a professor of management at MIT's Sloan School of Management. To reach that conclusion, the pair studied data compiled by the University of Chicago's Chapin Hall, which linked information from Chicago Public Schools, juvenile court records, and the Illinois Department of Corrections for 35,000 people who'd appeared in juvenile court between 1990 and 2006.

Juvenile detention increased the rate of going to prison as an adult by 23 percentage points.

Aizer and Doyle used a variety of statistical techniques to ensure their results were robust, but each technique yielded basically the same result: Being imprisoned at a young age has serious negative consequences, on top of an already bad situation. Chicago Public Schools' graduation rate during the time covered by the data was an already-low 40 percent. Among those who appeared in juvenile court, that rate drops to 10 percent, and among those sent to prison, it's a scant 0.2 percent. Juvenile detention also increased the rate of going to prison as an adult by 23 percentage points, Aizer and Doyle report.

Additional tests hint at why outcomes for juvenile prisoners are so bad. For one thing, 62 percent of those incarcerated never return to a Chicago public school, and among those who do return, only 28 percent go back to the school they were in before juvie. Students returning from juvenile detention centers are also more likely to be classified as having an emotional or behavioral disorder, though whether that reflects a change in behavior or something else is unclear.

Whatever the causes, the authors write, juvenile incarceration isn't doing anyone any good. It costs about $88,000 a year to imprison someone, they note—all for the sake of cutting graduation rates and increased crime once kids become adults, meaning that basically any alternative would be an improvement.

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