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Studying Deterrence Among High-Risk Adolescents
By The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention
Published: 09/28/2015

Teen gang turf war
The following is an excerpt from "Studying Deterrence Among High-Rish Adolescents" by Thomas A. Loughran, Robert Brame, Jeffery Fagan, Alex R. Piquero, Edward P. Mulvey and Carol A. Schubert. It was originally published by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the Juvenile Justice Bulletin, August 2015.


Highlights

The Pathways to Desistance study followed more than 1,300 serious juvenile offenders for 7 years after their conviction. In this bulletin, the authors present some key findings on the link between perceptions of the threat of sanctions and deterrence from crime among serious adolescent offenders. Selected findings are as follows:
  • There was no meaningful reduction in offending or arrests in response to more severe punishment (e.g., correctional placement, longer stays).
  • Policies targeting specific types of offending may be more effective at deterring youth from engaging in these specific offenses as opposed to general policies aimed at overall crime reduction.
  • In response to an arrest, youth slightly increased their risk perceptions, which is a necessary condition for deterrence.
  • Creating ambiguity about detection probabilities in certain areas or for certain types of crime may have a deterrent effect by enhancing the perceived risk of getting caught.
Studying Deterrence Among High-Risk Adolescents

Although deterrence is one of the foundations of the juvenile justice and criminal justice systems, little is known about how the fear or threat of sanctions affects the decisionmaking process among adolescent offenders. These youth are an important focus of research attention, given their disproportionate rates of participation in serious crime, the diversity of their offending patterns and developmental backgrounds, and the strong likelihood of desistance as they transition to adulthood. Policymakers who understand the role of deterrence in a broader context of developmental change and life course transitions have important information as they consider how to respond to crimes that adolescents commit and respond to the offenders themselves.

Yet, researchers and policymakers know very little about how serious adolescent offenders perceive the threat or experience of punishment, which threats or experiences affect them, and in what ways. Consequently, these threats or experiences are important factors in youth’s decisions to persist in or desist from crime (Anwar and Loughran, 2011; Paternoster, 1987; Nagin, 1998). In this bulletin, the authors consider—based on their review of recent evidence from the Pathways to Desistance study, a multisite, longitudinal sample of adolescent (primarily felony) offenders (see sidebar, “About the Pathways to Desistance Study”)—several questions regarding how juvenile offenders assess sanctions and the threat of sanctions [1]. Unlike most other research on serious adolescent offenders, the Pathways study draws from both interviews and official records from adolescence and early adulthood. The authors examine several questions related to deterring juveniles:
  • Do their offending and punishment experiences mold offenders’ perceptions of risks and consequences of offending (which relate directly to their propensity to be deterred from crimes)?
  • Does placing offenders in a correctional facility have any tangible deterrent effects?
  • Does longer placement have a more deterrent effect on juveniles?
The authors conclude with a discussion of directions for future applied research into deterrence and consider some broader implications for juvenile justice policy and practice.

Background

The criminological literature on deterrence (Beccaria, 1985; Zimring and Hawkins, 1973; Andenaes, 1974) is rooted in the belief that when offenders perceive criminal sanctions will be certain, severe, and swift, they will reduce their criminal activity because they perceive the risks and costs of sanctions will exceed the returns from crime. Becker (1968) suggested that offenders base their decisions to commit crime on the combined effects of three dimensions of deterrence, each of which forms part of a “sanction regime”—the risks of arrest, the likelihood of conviction, and the costs of punishment (see figure 1). To be effective, the combined effects of the sanction regime must neutralize or exceed the rewards of crime. Acting together, sanction regimes set both the risks and conditional costs of crime and—with timely responses that connect the crime to the costs—they create a deterrent threat. Much of modern deterrence theory can be traced back to Becker’s design.

Since Becker (1968), deterrence theorists typically have distinguished between two types of deterrence: for society as a whole (general deterrence) and for individuals (specific deterrence). General deterrence is predicated on the idea of vicarious learning. According to this perspective, clearly announced laws backed up with aggressive enforcement, prosecution, and punishment send a message to the community that crime will not be tolerated. Potential offenders—who learn from the experiences of others—will mostly choose not to offend. On the other hand, specific deterrence is predicated on the idea of experiential learning. This perspective emphasizes the importance of one’s own prior offending and sanction experiences in framing the costs and benefits of criminal involvement.

What is clear is that the extent to which offenders apply decisionmaking processes varies. Recidivism rates of previously sanctioned juvenile and adult offenders are high; however, they are not 100 percent (Nagin, 1998). Some offenders persist, whereas others desist. Desistance itself takes several forms. For some, it is spontaneous and abrupt; others desist incrementally over time; some desist for varying time intervals; and still others desist from serious crime by shifting to less serious (and potentially less costly) crimes. Perhaps due to differences in maturity, cognitive impairment, prior experiences, and other possible factors, some individuals “don’t get it” when they are punished for criminal activity, whereas others do and still others “get it eventually.” In addition, some may “get it” but decide to continue offending in the face of substantial risks of punishment.

The psychological literature on risk, for example, indicates that a developmental gap in the maturation of the cognitive-control system can help explain some adolescent risk behaviors. It has been well established that the logical reasoning capabilities of adolescents are comparable to those of adults by age 15; essentially, adolescents and adults are equally able to perceive risk and its potential effects (Reyna and Farley, 2006; Millstein and Halpern-Felsher, 2002; Steinberg, 2007). However, psychosocial maturation processes (e.g., impulse control, emotion regulation, future orientation, delayed gratification, resistance to peer influence) continue to develop into young adulthood (Steinberg, 2004). As such, it is believed that ongoing psychosocial development weakens the fully mature logical reasoning abilities of adolescents and results in higher vulnerability for engaging in risk-taking behaviors (Steinberg, 2007).

Results from the Pathways study address two of the three prongs of the deterrence equation—the certainty and severity hypotheses. The idea behind the first hypothesis is that more certain punishment should reduce crime because the greater a person’s perceived likelihood that he or she will be caught for committing a crime, the less willingness he or she should have to engage in that crime. The severity hypothesis is based on the assumption that the stronger the penalty associated with a crime, the greater the potential cost of committing the crime, which should also dissuade offenders.2 Although the idea that increasing the severity of punishment should serve as a strongly motivating deterrent from crime is intuitive and popular, the majority of deterrence research indicates that the certainty of the punishment, rather than its severity, is the primary mechanism through which deterrence works (Nagin, 1998; Durlauf and Nagin, 2011; Paternoster, 2010). In other words, all things being equal, offenders typically respond to a threatened punishment that is more likely to occur than to one that is more severe. However, it should be noted that the majority—though certainly not all—of deterrence research has been conducted on adults; that is, much of what researchers know about deterrence and risk has not necessarily been studied in juvenile populations (Levitt, 1998). Recent research, described in this bulletin, has begun to close this age gap in the literature.

In this bulletin, the authors review evidence from the Pathways to Desistance study on deterrence among serious adolescent offenders. They find no meaningful reduction in either offending or arrests in response to more severe punishments (e.g., correctional placement, longer lengths of placement). However, the authors do find evidence that serious adolescent offenders respond to the threat or risk of sanctions; their recidivism is tied strongly and directly to their perceptions of how certain they are that they will be arrested.

ABOUT THE PATHWAYS TO DESISTANCE STUDY

The Pathways to Desistance study is a multidisciplinary, multisite longitudinal investigation of how serious juvenile offenders make the transition from adolescence to adulthood. It follows 1,354 young offenders from Philadelphia County, PA, and Maricopa County, AZ (metropolitan Phoenix), for 7 years after their court involvement. This study has collected the most comprehensive dataset currently available about serious adolescent offenders and their lives in late adolescence and early adulthood. It looks at the factors that lead youth who have committed serious offenses to persist in or desist from offending. Among the aims of the study are to:
  • Identify initial patterns of how serious adolescent offenders stop antisocial activity.
  • Describe the role of social context and developmental changes in promoting these positive changes.
  • Compare the effects of sanctions and interventions in promoting these changes.
Characteristics of Study Participants

Enrollment took place between November 2000 and March 2003, and the research team concluded data collection in 2010. In general, participating youth were at least 14 years old and younger than 18 years old at the time of their study index petition; 8 youth were 13 years old and 16 youth were older than age 18 but younger than 19 at the time of their index petition. The youth in the sample were adjudicated delinquent or found guilty of a serious (overwhelmingly felony-level) violent crime, property offense, or drug offense at their current court appearance. Although felony drug offenses are among the eligible charges, the study limited the proportion of male drug offenders to no more than 15 percent; this limit ensures a heterogeneous sample of serious offenders. Because investigators wanted to include a large enough sample of female offenders—a group neglected in previous research—this limit did not apply to female drug offenders. In addition, youth whose cases were considered for trial in the criminal justice system were enrolled, regardless of the offense committed.

At the time of enrollment, participants were an average of 16.2 years old. The sample was 84 percent male and 80 percent minority (41 percent black, 34 percent Hispanic, and 5 percent American Indian/other). For approximately one-quarter (25.5 percent) of study participants, the study index petition was their first petition to court. Of the remaining participants (those with a petition before the study index petition), 69 percent had 2 or more prior petitions; the average was 3 in Maricopa County and 2.8 in Philadelphia County (exclusive of the study index offense). At both sites, more than 40 percent of the adolescents enrolled were adjudicated of felony crimes against persons (i.e., murder, robbery, aggravated assault, sex offenses, and kidnapping). At the time of the baseline interview for the study, 50 percent of these adolescents were in an institutional setting (usually a residential treatment center); during the 7 years after study enrollment, 87 percent of the sample spent some time in an institutional setting.

Interview Methodology

Immediately after enrollment, researchers conducted a structured 4-hour baseline interview (in two sessions) with each adolescent. This interview included a thorough assessment of the adolescent’s self-reported social background, developmental history, psychological functioning, psychosocial maturity, attitudes about illegal behavior, intelligence, school achievement and engagement, work experience, mental health, current and previous substance use and abuse, family and peer relationships, use of social services, and antisocial behavior.

After the baseline interview, researchers interviewed study participants every 6 months for the first 3 years, and annually thereafter. At each followup interview, researchers gathered information on the adolescent’s self-reported behavior and experiences during the previous 6-month or 1-year reporting period, including any illegal activity, drug or alcohol use, and involvement with treatment or other services. Youth’s self-reports about illegal activities included information about the range, the number, and other circumstances of those activities (e.g., whether or not others took part). In addition, the followup interviews collected a wide range of information about changes in life situations (e.g., living arrangements, employment), developmental factors (e.g., likelihood of thinking about and planning for the future, relationships with parents), and functional capacities (e.g., mental health symptoms).

Researchers also asked participants to report monthly about certain variables (e.g., school attendance, work performance, and involvement in interventions and sanctions) to maximize the amount of information obtained and to detect activity cycles shorter than the reporting period.

In addition to the interviews of study participants, for the first 3 years of the study, researchers annually interviewed a family member or friend about the study participant to validate the participant’s responses. Each year, researchers also reviewed official records (local juvenile and adult court records and FBI nationwide arrest records) for each adolescent. Investigators have now completed the last (84-month) set of followup interviews, and the research team is analyzing interview data. The study maintained the adolescents’ participation throughout the project: At each followup interview point, researchers found and interviewed approximately 90 percent of the enrolled sample. Researchers have completed more than 21,000 interviews in all.

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