Ezra notes the forthcoming release of Mark Kleiman’s intriguing book When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment. It cuts against our retributionist instincts, but holds out the promise of achieving crime reduction while also having less recourse to prison. Having heard Kleiman talk about his thesis—and the empirical work behind it—I’m eager to dig into the full version. But this also reminds me of a Canadian study I saw mentioned in the press over the weekend, to the effect that juveniles who have been through the juvenile justice system end up much more likely to find themselves on the wrong side of the law as adults—something like seven times more likely—than kids with similar histories but no judicial intervention. The more severe the intervention, they found, the greater the damage.
I should probably go look at the full study, but it seems like there are a handful of different—though not necessarily inconsistent—stories you can tell about what’s going on with. The researchers reportedly go with one of the more obvious ones: Kids grouped with lots of other young delinquents end up enmeshed in a “culture of deviance” where criminality is both taught and valorized. Another possibility has to do with the difficulty of getting accurate reports from kids on their own criminal behaviors. At the very least, one difference in the histories of the kids in the two samples, beyond the intervention of the justice system, is that one group of kids was doing something earlier that attracted the attention of the criminal justice system. Now, you can go out and look for people who didn’t get caught who’ll admit to having committed robbery or assault or drug peddling or what have you as kids. But what I expect it’d be tougher to get from the kids in the system, whatever confidentiality you promise, is an honest report of what other things they were doing up until they got caught. Because you can bet most of them will swear that whatever they got nailed for, it was the first time, honest! But probably not. Even if they were committing precisely the same crimes with precisely the same frequency, getting caught suggests greater recklessness about it, which may in turn suggest deeper impulse-control problems.
More interesting to me is the effect of being branded as a criminal, quite apart from the lessons in criminality one might absorb in juvie. (Martha Nussbaum’s work on shaming punishments may be relevant here.) I’m guessing most of us knew kids back in high school who got in fights or had a penchant for the “five-fingered discount” or dealt a little dope. Some of them went on to more serious crimes. But a lot of them basically grew out of it. And one reason they were able to grow out of it was that, whatever their reasons for acting out in these ways, they didn’t really think of themselves as criminals. They were kids who did some criminal things. Getting away with it means—and requires—preserving a public persona as non-criminal that remains available as the child or teen matures. Formal interaction with the justice system hastens along the shift in self-conception from “I am a person who has done some criminal acts”—this is probably strictly true of the vast majority of us—to “I am a criminal.” This may be the most unsettling possibility, because one can imagine reforming judicial interventions such that, for instance, we didn’t lock up a bunch of young delinquents together to develop a self-reinforcing culture and informal academy for studies in advanced thuggery. But if this “branding” effect plays a significant role, then the fact of intervention itself will tend to cause the problem.
This reminds me of a line from a recent episode of This American Life that provoked a chuckle and a nod at the time. Paraphrasing roughly, it was something like: We routinely accept high school kids doing things to each other that, if you did them as an adult, you would clearly go to jail. And that’s obviously true, but perhaps this study gives us another reason to think that’s not such a bad thing after all.