What works in juvenile justice? That's always a big question. After every youth violence tragedy, government officials are asked what they intend to do about teen crime. Academics and experts are asked how to reduce delinquency, how to lower recidivism, and which programs and policies are most effective?
January 06, 2012
Are we reducing crime by limiting the use of incarceration?
When casual readers of the news media search for stories about juvenile crime and justice today, they find a lot of good news. Other than the perennial media coverage of individual crimes and victimization, an online search about juvenile justice today generates dozens of stories about states uncovering abuses in their youth corrections systems, reducing their rates of juvenile incarceration and increasing their reliance on community-based programs for young offenders.
Many of these stories refer to the ongoing decline in crime and violence as possible proof that these changes in policy and practice are improving public safety. But, a prudent reader will stop to ask about the direction of causality in these explanations. Are we reducing crime by limiting the use of incarceration, or is incarceration down because crime is down? The question is more than a topic for academic study. We need to consider our answer carefully if we hope to sustain these recent improvements over the long term.
The number of juvenile offenders being held in secure correctional institutions has been falling nationwide. Advocates in the juvenile justice field welcome this reform because reductions in the use of secure confinement allow state and local jurisdictions to intervene with young offenders in their own homes and communities, which is less costly and can be more effective than incarceration in reducing recidivism and preventing crime.
My colleague Douglas Evans and I recently reviewed the most prominent juvenile correctional reform models from the past 40 years, and we concluded that some models of reform were likely to be more sustainable than others. Specifically, we recommended the "realignment" approach now being implemented in California and those established in Wayne County (Detroit), Michigan since 2000.
August 09, 2011
Assessing Program Outcomes Can be Tricky
I often work with juvenile justice programs and their staff, advising them on research and evaluation issues. I recently learned that people need to be reminded that using pre-/post-outcome comparisons to judge the effectiveness of a program can be misleading.
In a recent meeting I attended, a program director was defending the effectiveness of his agency's intervention approach. He described what he believed were solid measures of impact by first describing the rate of offending among his program's clients prior to intake (in terms of average arrests per year).
Then, he told us how that number was cut in half during the first year after a youth completed the program. According to him, this meant that the program had been proven effective.
For emphasis, he added, “With such good before-and-after data, we don't need any more evidence to know that we’re effective.”
Eeek, I thought to myself.
He clearly didn't realize that his assertion of effectiveness was risky and possibly flawed.
Many people believe that agencies can assess their effectiveness entirely with pre/post comparisons of youth outcomes, such as recidivism or drug use before and after treatment.
Apparently, they do not know about the statistical bias present in that sort of comparison.
Gail Wasserman and her colleagues from the Center for the Promotion of Mental Health in Juvenile Justice at Columbia University published an important new study that was released just this week in Criminal Justice and Behavior: "Psychiatric Disorder, Comorbidity, and Suicidal Behavior in Juvenile Justice Youth." It may be the best source of information yet on the prevalence of substance abuse and mental health disorders among youth in the juvenile justice system.
We need accurate information. I've heard many practitioners around the country make the same mistake, claiming that "70 percent" of the youth in "the system" have diagnosable disorders. As I described in a 2008 post on this blog ("Size of Drug Problem in Juvenile Justice Depends on Where You Look"), this common mistake usually starts with a misreading of the 2002 study by Linda Teplin at Northwestern University.
Teplin and her colleagues found high rates of substance abuse and mental disorders among a population of juvenile offenders, but many readers failed to note that the study was about just one large detention center—not exactly a good proxy for the entire juvenile system. The Teplin study did not include data about youth at other stages of the juvenile justice process, such as probation and intake.
Gail Wasserman and her colleagues, on the other hand, used a high-quality and consistent methodology (the DISC) to measure the presence of disorders among nearly 10,000 juveniles in more than 50 jurisdictions and at varying points of juvenile justice contact, including juvenile intake.
February 16, 2011
Size of Drug Problem in Juvenile Justice Depends on Where You Look
Researchers investigating the prevalence of substance abuse problems among youthful offenders find that the rate of abuse varies according to where they look.
December 29, 2010
Agnosticism and the Search for EBP
We in the youth services field should never let our desire to be "evidence-based" turn us into a "faith-based" movement. When we're searching for the most effective ways to help young people avoid trouble with drugs and stay out of the justice system, we should be agnostics — even the most attractive new answer should never stop us from asking important questions.
July 27, 2010
Use, Abuse, Dependence - Who Decides?
I often hear people refer to the distinction between drug "use" and drug "abuse" as if it were an immutable, medical fact. A review of recent history suggests otherwise. Just as the American Psychiatric Association once viewed homosexuality as a mental disorder, the meaning of "substance use disorder" has evolved over time. The definitions we use today are partly a social construction, subject to changing mores, values, and even our political culture.
As readers of this blog certainly know, social service professionals use a variety of screening and assessment instruments to detect drug problems. Many tools still rely on the underlying logic of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, or DSM.
The DSM is widely endorsed, but few policymakers and other nonclinicians appreciate how much it has evolved. Consider this passage from the DSM 1980 edition:
People who are truly chemically dependent and drug addicted often require treatment to change their behavior, but not all offenders (especially juvenile offenders) are truly drug dependent. We need effective ways to help them change their behavor too.
November 23, 2009
Can Drug Policy Really be Evidence-Based?
If you have not heard about the ongoing controversy surrounding drug policy in the U.K., you might want to read about it. It's a fascinating example of the troubling incompatibilities between science, politics, and morality.
His problems began when he agreed to publish a report through the widely regarded Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at Kings College London.
April 06, 2009
The Enduring Gateway Myth
In my work with juvenile justice agencies and drug treatment professionals, I still hear people call cannabis (or marijuana) a "gateway" drug. This is one of those notions that just won't go away despite the availability of good information that disproves it.