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Locking up juveniles may plant seeds of more crime

Incarcerating the young is often counterproductive, new research shows

Mary Schmich

July 17, 2013

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Joe Doyle was still a grad student at the University of Chicago in the late 1990s when he went to watch the proceedings in Cook County's juvenile court.

He sat there while inexperienced lawyers argued over the fate of young offenders, mostly young black men. He witnessed judges who had to instruct those inexperienced lawyers on procedure at the same time that they, the judges, had to render life-altering decisions.

To incarcerate or not to incarcerate?

Sitting in the busy court, watching judges face that question, Doyle wondered what would happen to those kids in 10 years.

Would being locked up hurt or help?

Now an economics professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Doyle recently released research that suggests a partial answer to the question.

His paper has an eye-boggling, academic title: "Juvenile Incarceration, Human Capital, and Future Crime: Evidence From Randomly-Assigned Judges."

When I called him Tuesday, I asked him to put his findings about offenders into layperson's terms.

"If you're sentenced to juvenile incarceration," he said, "you're twice as likely to go into adult prison by 25."

The average person might think, well, yeah, what's the news there?

Bad dude at 15, worse dude at 25. Pass the sports section.

Doyle's research suggests it's not that simple, that juvenile incarceration can actually increase crime, a belief that has many proponents but which has been hard to quantify.

Juvenile incarceration. Juvy. The school-to-prison pipeline.

Whatever terms you use for the problem, the United States locks up young people at a far higher rate than any other country in the world.

And whatever terms you use, Doyle's research puts some numbers to the claim that that is counterproductive.

Doyle and his co-author, Anna Aizer of Brown University, collected data from 35,000 adolescents who committed crimes in Chicago in the 1990s. They studied which offenders were incarcerated and which weren't. They then compared which ones wound up in prison as adults.

They did their best to compare teenagers who were legitimately comparable, those of the same age, same race, same crime and same neighborhood.

"Apples to apples," Doyle said.

Their complex study — filled with terms like "variables," "regression" and "confounding factors" — comes down to a few basic conclusions.

One conclusion: The judge makes a difference.

Some judges are relatively lenient. Some are strict. So one offender goes home with an ankle monitor and a curfew while a similar offender gets locked up with a bunch of other troublemakers, removed from family, church, routine and school.

Another conclusion: If you get locked up, your odds of dropping out of school increase.

"You're supposed to be going to school while you're there," Doyle says of the juvenile facility, "but kids aren't there very long, so it's not like teachers are investing in new education plans for them."

In Doyle's study, all the offenders were unlikely to finish high school, but the incarcerated ones were at even higher risk.

Of the incarcerated teenagers, only 2 percent went back to school when they were let out.

Two percent.

That's a lot of 15- and 16-year-olds roaming around with nothing to do and nowhere to go and no adult to watch them.

And the most significant conclusion from the research: By locking up so many juveniles — removing them from their communities, increasing the odds that they drop out of school — we may be seeding more crime.

I asked Doyle if he thought incarceration was helpful for any young people.

"I'm just not sure," he said. "There are the ones all the judges would agree need to be incarcerated, and it's possible those kids are scared straight and go on to better lives."

On the other hand, he said, plenty of research suggests that at 14 or 15, teenagers aren't deterred by stricter penalties.

In the past decade, some states, Illinois among them, have reversed the juvenile incarceration trend that exploded in the 1980s and '90s.

Doyle's research may give the trend even more momentum. He likes that.

But he is not a social worker. He's an economist.

Leave it to others to make eloquent arguments about the injustice of locking up so many young people, who happen to be disproportionately young people with dark skin.

Doyle's research helps make the dry-eyed case that juvenile incarceration, pure and simple, costs too much. The cost of prisons. The loss of individuals' earning power and learning power.

We all pay, and it's a debt that swells far into the future.

mschmich@tribune.com