Society needs to get tough
on causes of crime, says Agnew
More than 40 states-including Georgia-have recently passed legislation
making it easier for juveniles to be tried in adult court. This legislation
is part of a larger trend to get tough with serious juvenile offenders.
Most states have also increased the penalties given out to certain offenders
in juvenile court. As a consequence, there has been a large increase in
the juvenile incarceration rate. Most confined juveniles are now in overcrowded
facilities that suffer from a range of problems, as illustrated by the recent
federal investigation of Georgia's juvenile correctional system.
This "get tough" legislation was passed in response to a real
problem. Juveniles ages 10-17 make up 13 percent of the population but account
for 31 percent of all arrests for Index, or serious, crimes and 19 percent
of all arrests for violent crimes. The rate of juvenile violence increased
sharply from the mid-1980s to 1994, with the juvenile homicide rate more
than doubling (juvenile violence, including homicide, is now declining).
On the face of it, it seems this get tough approach should reduce juvenile
crime: More severe penalties should deter juveniles from committing crime,
and those chronic offenders who are not deterred can be locked away for
long periods (most serious crime is committed by a small group of chronic
offenders, about 5-10 percent of the adolescent population). Several studies,
however, suggest the impact of these get tough strategies has been overstated.
These strategies often fail to deter the juveniles who are punished.
Certain data suggest that juveniles tried in adult court are more likely
to re-offend than similar youth tried in juvenile court (e.g., "The
Transfer of Juveniles to Adult Court," Donna M. Bishop et al.,
Crime and Delinquency 42 (1996): 171-191). Likewise, studies indicate that
many other get tough strategies-like the use of military-style boot camps-often
fail to deter offenders (e.g., Boot Camps for Juvenile Offenders,
U.S. Department of Justice, 1997).
Further, these strategies are unlikely to deter youth in the general
population. The probability of punishment is more important than the severity
of punishment in deterring crime. In particular, threatening juveniles with
severe punishments has little impact if few juveniles are caught and punished.
At present, the large majority of juvenile crimes never become known to
the police, and only about 20 percent of those crimes known to the police
result in arrest. Threats of severe punishment, then, have little impact.
And it is unlikely that we can increase the probability of punishment to
the point that it would have a substantial deterrent effect (although this
might be done for select types of crime in certain locations-see Juvenile
Gun Violence and Gun Markets in Boston, David Kennedy, U.S. Department of
Finally, the strategy of confining chronic offenders for long periods
has only a modest effect on crime. It is difficult to identify such offenders
early in their careers, when confinement would have the largest impact.
And the early confinement of chronic offenders does not prevent as many
crimes as was first thought (among other things, juveniles usually commit
their crimes in groups and the other group members may continue to offend
at a high rate). (See Chapters 15 and 22 in Criminology, Joseph Sheley,
So what should we do? I suggest that we place less emphasis on getting
tough with juvenile offenders and more on attacking the root causes of delinquency
(prevention) and providing treatment to juvenile offenders (rehabilitation).
This is not a popular strategy at present-many people believe that rehabilitation
and prevention do not work and that serious offenders deserve severe punishments.
However, we now have a reasonably good idea of the causes of delinquency.
Such causes include traits like impulsivity and low verbal IQ, child abuse,
family conflict, poor parenting practices, poor school performance, low
commitment to school, association with delinquent peers and gang members,
and growing up in poor, disorganized communities. A number of prevention
and treatment programs have been developed to address these causes, like
pre- and postnatal health care programs, preschool enrichment programs,
parent-training programs, and a variety of school-based interventions.
These programs are successful in reducing delinquency or show strong
promise of success. One recent review concluded that well-designed treatment
programs reduce re-offending rates by about 50 percent on average (see The
Psychology of Criminal Conduct, D.A. Andrews and James Bonta, Anderson,
1994). These programs are also cost effective-more than paying for themselves
in terms of the crime (and other problems) they prevent. And these programs
represent a more just approach to the control of delinquency since they
recognize that crime is at least partly caused by factors beyond the juvenile's
control-like poverty and poor parenting.
At the same time, I should note that it is true many rehabilitation/prevention
programs do not work. Some may even increase re-offending-like Scared Straight-type
programs that involve encounters with hard-core prisoners. The prevention
and rehabilitation programs we employ need to be carefully selected and
implemented, and we should insist that all programs be properly evaluated-something
that rarely happens today.
Also I should note that the use of such programs does not mean we need
to stop holding juveniles (partly) accountable for their behavior. It simply
means we place more emphasis on identifying and helping "at risk"
juveniles and providing treatment for those who have already offended. For
a strategy that combines accountability and with an emphasis on prevention/rehabilitation,
see Combating Violence and Delinquency: The National Juvenile Justice
Action Plan, U.S. Department of Justice, 1996.
It is time that we address the underlying problems that cause delinquency
rather than simply responding to the symptoms of these problems.
Robert Agnew is a professor in the Department of Sociology.
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