Formal System Processing of Juveniles: Effects on Delinquency
WestEd researchers conducted a review of 29 randomized experiments, which found that system processing did not reduce juvenile delinquency and often increased crime when compared to providing a diversion program or "doing nothing."
Researchers included experimental studies published through July 2008 that randomly assigned youths 17 and younger to juvenile system processing — or to an alternative non-system condition (i.e., diversion). All studies had to include at least one outcome of delinquency or crime.
This study addressed the key research question:
- Does formal juvenile system processing reduce subsequent delinquency?
Using electronic searches of 44 bibliographic databases and other search methods, a total of 29 experiments meeting the criteria were identified and retrieved for the analysis. An instrument was designed to code data on substantive and methodological characteristics from each of the 29 trials. Outcomes were converted to standardized "effect sizes" to permit synthesis and comparison across studies. Main effects for prevalence, incidence, severity, and self-report were analyzed, and exploratory analyses of five factors were also conducted.
The 29 studies included 7,304 juveniles over a 35-year period. Juvenile system processing, at least given the experimental evidence presented in this report, does not appear to have a crime control effect. In fact, almost all of the results are negative in direction, as measured by group failure rates (prevalence), number of offenses per person in each group (incidence), how serious the subsequent crimes were (severity), and even when using self-report rather than outcomes based on police or court statistics.
The results are not uniform across every study; one important moderating variable is the type of control group. Studies that compared system processing to a diversion program reported much larger negative effect sizes than those that compared it to "doing nothing."
Based on the evidence presented in this study, juvenile system processing appears to not have a crime control effect, and across all measures appears to increase delinquency. This was true across measures of prevalence, incidence, severity, and self-report.
Given the additional financial costs associated with system processing (especially when compared to doing nothing) and the lack of evidence for any public safety benefit, jurisdictions should review their policies regarding the handling of juveniles.