Juvenile Justice System Research: Introducing the Pathways to Desistance study

[Last December, I posted a bare-bones summary of the groundbreaking "Pathways to Desistance" study on serious juvenile offenders underwritten by the MacArthur Foundation, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), and eight other funders. This is the first in a series of posts by the two researchers overseeing the study that describes their results with more precision and in more detail. --Ed.]
juvenile-justice-system-research_Desistance-report-coverThe Pathways to Desistance study is a multi-site, longitudinal study of serious adolescent offenders as they transition from adolescence into early adulthood. Between November, 2000 and January, 2003, 1,354 adjudicated youths from the juvenile and adult court systems in Maricopa County (Phoenix), Arizona (N = 654) and Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania (N = 700) were enrolled in the study. The enrolled youth were at least 14 years old and under 18 years old at the time of their committing offense and were found guilty of a serious offense (predominantly felonies, with a few exceptions for some misdemeanor property offenses, sexual assault, or weapons offenses). These are the types of serious adolescent offenders that often drive debate about how well the juvenile justice system works to control crime and rehabilitate youth. 

Each study participant was followed for a period of seven years past enrollment. Follow-up interviews were conducted every six months for the first three years and annually after that.   The follow-up interviews covered six domains: (a) indicators of individual functioning (e.g., work and school status and performance, substance abuse, mental disorder, antisocial behavior), (b) psychosocial development and attitudes (e.g., impulse control, susceptibility to peer influence, perceptions of opportunity, perceptions of procedural justice, moral disengagement), (c) family context (e.g., household composition, quality of family relationships), (d) personal relationships (e.g., quality of romantic relationships and friendships, peer delinquency, contacts with caring adults), (e) community context (e.g., neighborhood conditions, personal capital, social ties, and community involvement) and (f) a monthly account of changes across multiple domains (e.g. work, living situation). The end result is a comprehensive picture of life changes in a wide array of areas over the course of the seven-year period when these youth were moving from adolescence into early adulthood.
The study was designed to:

  • Identify distinct initial pathways out of juvenile justice system involvement and the characteristics of the adolescents who progress along each of these pathways.
  • Describe the role of social context and developmental changes in promoting desistance or continuation of antisocial behavior.
  • Compare the effects of sanctions and selected interventions in altering progression along the pathways out of juvenile justice system involvement.

The larger goals of the Pathways study are to improve decision-making by court and social service personnel and to clarify policy debates about alternatives for serious adolescent offenders. The hope is to provide juvenile justice professionals and policy-makers with reliable empirical information that can be applied to improve practice, particularly regarding juveniles' competence and culpability, risk for future offending, and amenability to rehabilitation. This is the most comprehensive and far reaching study done yet of serious adolescent offenders.
In future blog posts, we will be discussing some of the findings from the Pathways to Desistance study. This information provides the context for those findings.

Click to learn more about the Pathways to Desistance study here and its generous underwriters.
Carol A. Schubert, M.P.H., is the Pathways Study Coordinator and the Research Program Administrator for the Law and Psychiatry Program at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
Edward P. Mulvey, Ph.D., is Principal Investigator for the Pathways Study and a Professor of Psychiatry Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. 

Updated: February 08 2018