Penn Study: Trying Kids as Adults Can Reduce Recidivism

But that doesn't necessarily mean we should try more juveniles in adult courts.

Photo |

Photo |

A number of academic studies have found that prosecuting juveniles as adults increases the likelihood that they’ll end up back in the criminal justice system, with recidivism going up as much as 20 percent to 30 percent in such cases. This has led some policymakers to try to raise the age that kids can be tried as adults.

But a new study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania flips that narrative on its head.

In a paper published in the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, assistant professor Charles Loeffler and doctoral candidate Ben Grunwald tracked the outcomes of 78,142 felony drug arrests of teenagers. They found that processing these juveniles as adults actually reduced their chances of being arrested or charged again after being released — by a significant amount.

“Processing juveniles who are close to their 17th birthday in the adult system is associated with a roughly 28 percent reduction in the relative odds of rearrest or a 5 percent reduction in the probability of recidivism,” the authors wrote.

What accounts for the unexpected results of the study?

Loeffler and Grunwald say that past research has tended to examine juveniles who have serious charges, such as armed robbery or burglary, or who are repeat offenders.

“The results of most studies in the literature may, therefore, not generalize to more typical juvenile crimes like drug, property and simple assault offenses,” they said. “Adult processing may exert a behavioral change in some juveniles who would otherwise have continued offending for only a short period of time. If this interpretation is correct, then felony drug offenders, and perhaps other young adult offenders, may benefit from adult processing.”

Another reason for the surprising results, the researchers say, is that their analysis may be less vulnerable to selection bias than past studies.

Here in Philadelphia, there are currently 31 male juveniles housed in the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center and two female juveniles in the Riverside Correctional Facility for Women.

But Loeffler and Grunwald admit that their study should be taken with a grain of salt for several reasons.

For one thing, they said, “This study focuses on one jurisdiction and only a portion of its juvenile justice system. Other jurisdictions and other boundary thresholds may reveal different effects due to the characteristics of the arrestees, the boundary rules, or the juvenile and adult justice systems more generally.”

For another thing, they only looked at the effect of processing juveniles as adults on recidivism rates. There are lot of other important metrics to consider. For instance, what does being in adult courts and jails do to young people’s mental health? And does the fact that kids are tried as adults make it harder for them to obtain jobs after being released? It could if it meant that their criminal records are more accessible to potential employers.

Follow @HollyOtterbein on Twitter.