A Critical Examination of Juvenile Delinquency Programs and their Efficacy for Reducing Adult Criminal Behavior

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Juvenile delinquency represents a significant problem in the United States and often represents a large percentage of the total criminal activity within a given community. Due to ethical and legal implications of prosecuting underage citizens, a wide range of juvenile delinquency programs has been established to help rehabilitate young delinquents and reduce the risk of future criminal behaviors. However, the effectiveness of these programs remains the subject of considerable debate by both researchers and those involved in law enforcement or rehabilitation.

One factor that is widely debated in terms of juvenile delinquency program effectiveness is the resulting economic impact of these rehabilitation efforts. According to Wileman, Gullone, and Moss (2007), the economic implications of housing and rehabilitating juvenile delinquents do not always warrant the substantial efforts placed in these programs. Conversely, numerous researchers (e.g., Fagan, Hanson, Hawkins, & Arthur, 2008) suggest that funding efforts to rehabilitate delinquents have the ability to significantly reduce the economic burdens of adult crime. For example, the costs of housing adult prisoners are far greater than that of juvenile delinquents, and effectively rehabilitating potential adult criminals while they are young may ultimately save taxpayers millions of dollars each year (Fagan et al., 2008).

Based on the widespread debate that exists regarding juvenile delinquency programs, the purpose of this paper is to critically examine the literature regarding program effectiveness. Specifically, this paper intends to explore whether or not improving existing juvenile delinquency programs can better assist troubled youth and prevent future overspending related to crime and prison funding. Following this review of the literature, policy implications will then be considered, including directions for future researchers and policymakers. This paper concludes with a brief summary and an outline of key points.

Review of Literature

This section includes a review of existing evidence regarding the effectiveness of juvenile delinquency programs. The relationship between juvenile delinquency and adult criminal behavior is first discussed, followed by an evaluation of current types of juvenile delinquency programs within the United States. Finally, the effectiveness of juvenile delinquency programs is considered, based on a review of evidence within the literature.

Relationship Between Juvenile Delinquency and Adult Criminal Behavior

Researchers have long been interested in the relationship between juvenile delinquency and criminal behavior. For example, a classic study by Frum (1958) demonstrated that 46% of all adult criminals sampled began their criminal careers prior to the age of 18. The juvenile crimes committed by those sampled in this study were not limited to common thefts or other misdemeanors. According to Frum (1958), many adult criminals reported committing felonies as early as 14. Additionally, clear patterns were observed regarding the progression from more minor offenses as juvenile delinquents to more severe crimes as adults. This seminal study demonstrates the relationship that exists between youth and adult criminal activity, as well as the tendency for such individuals to seek out more aggressive, violent, and felonious behaviors as they enter adulthood.

More recent evidence (e.g., Wileman, Gullone, & Moss, 2007) suggests that these trends have not significantly improved over the past five decades. According to Mason and colleagues (2010), similar patterns as those demonstrated by Frum (1958) can be observed in young adults who engage in risky sexual behaviors, illicit drug use, and behavioral problems. Additionally, these same researchers found that similar, but less significant relationships, could be found between alcohol consumption and adult criminal activity (Mason et al., 2010). Finally, Borduin, Schaeffer, and Heiblum (2009) found that young adults who were convicted of sexual offenses were considerably more likely to commit similar acts as adults.

There is some evidence that the link between juvenile delinquency and adult crime is mediated by demographic factors such as race (Lipsey, 1984), socioeconomic status (Roundtree, Grenier, & Homan, 1993), and environmental factors (e.g., neighborhood crime rates, Veneziano, Veneziano, & Gill, 2000). The one commonality between these studies is the advocacy for early interventions in order to diminish juvenile delinquent behaviors and eventually reduce future adult criminal activity. Research is fairly unequivocal in regards to the strong link between juvenile and adult crimes, and efforts to reduce such activity early on may potentially reduce the economic burden associated with currently high crime rates (Piquero & Steinberg, 2010). Intervention is needed to a greater extent in urban areas featuring higher percentages of minority population groups and lower socioeconomic statuses, as these neighborhoods typically feature the highest juvenile and adult crime rates (Veneziano, Veneziano, & Gill, 2000).

A major impact of a failure to intervene and target juvenile delinquency is the already-overcrowded prisons that exist within the American justice system. In the state of California, for example, 156,000 inmates are currently being housed in facilities that are only designed to hold 85,000 people (Newman & Scott, 2012). As the national average cost to incarcerate a state prisoner is approximately $49,000, it is easy to observe the economic burden incurred by the public due to the high crime rates. Unfortunately, these trends appear to be increasing, rather than decreasing. Therefore, increased consideration must be given to improving current rehabilitation efforts for juvenile delinquents.

Types of Juvenile Delinquency Prevention Programs

As the actual crimes committed by juvenile delinquents vary in severity and nature, so do treatment programs designed to reduce or rehabilitate these behaviors (Fagan et al., 2008). Upon reviewing research related to juvenile delinquency programs throughout the United States, there appear to five prevailing types, including drug-based, educational, vocational, psychological or counseling-based, and those directed toward hate crimes (Sealock & Manasse, 2012). Each of these types of juvenile delinquency programs is reviewed in more detail below.

Drug-based juvenile delinquency programs are catered to those offenders convicted of crimes such as drug possession, drug sale or distribution, consumption or sale of alcohol, or any number of additional drug-related charges (Sealock & Manasse, 2012). Instead of serving more severe penalties, these offenders are often given the chance to engage in drug education and counseling through intensive in-patient clinics (Stein, Deberard, & Homan, 2013). Juvenile delinquents in these facilities are subject to random drug screenings and are required to attend regular individual and group-based drug counseling (Stein, Deberard, & Homan, 2013). Upon completion of the more intensive in-patient component of treatment, offenders are then required to attend several months, and sometimes years, of out-patient treatment (Stein, Deberard, & Homan, 2013). Violation of any of the requirements associated with these drug-based juvenile delinquency programs may be grounds for more severe legal penalties.

Educational juvenile delinquency programs are generally provided for offenders who are convicted of minor offenses and are not considered a significant threat of injury to themselves or others (Welsh, Rocque, & Greenwood, 2013). These programs are designed to rehabilitate juvenile delinquents by providing more direct paths to educational success, and most require that offenders obtain at least a General Equivalency Degree (GED) prior to completion. A significant advantage to educationally based juvenile delinquency programs is the ability to provide core academic curriculums in an environment free of delinquency opportunities (Welsh, Rocque, & Greenwood, 2013). Additionally, delinquents in these programs may be provided the chance to earn college credits.

Similar to educational juvenile delinquency programs are those that promote vocational training opportunities. Vocational and educational delinquency programs are often combined, although the former places a stronger emphasis on developing specific work-related skills that enable delinquents to ultimately support themselves (Piquero & Steinberg, 2010). As opposed to traditional educational programs, vocational training programs allow offenders to choose a career path of interest (e.g., mechanics or carpentry) and direct the majority of their efforts to gaining future employment in these disciplines (Piquero & Steinberg, 2010).

Psychologically-based, or counseling, juvenile delinquency programs rely on behavioral and therapeutic techniques for diminishing the specific thoughts and behaviors that contribute to juvenile delinquents' desire to commit crimes (Sealock & Manasse, 2012). Such programs are aimed at identifying the individual and environmental determinants of offenders' criminal activity and helping them develop more optimal coping strategies (Sealock & Manasse, 2012). Research (e.g., Roundtree, Grenier, & Hoffman, 1993) suggests that young offenders are more prone to hormonal and peer influences that increase the likelihood of crime and helping these individuals develop healthier outlets can help diminish criminal behaviors.

Perhaps the most recent types of juvenile delinquency programs to experience widespread use are those oriented toward reducing hate crimes. Hate crimes refer to any criminal activity initiated by specific victim-based targeting (e.g., sexuality, race, or religion). Such programs are designed to both educate offenders and instill attitudes or tolerance to individuals of varying demographic backgrounds (Piquero & Steinberg, 2010).

Effectiveness of Juvenile Delinquency Programs

Numerous reviews have evaluated the impact of juvenile delinquency programs on an array of outcomes. For example, Nation and colleagues (2003) conducted a seminal review of interventions aimed at juvenile delinquents, identifying characteristics nine key characteristics of effective programs. According to these authors, programs were more effective when they were more comprehensive, drawing on more than one of the above approaches toward rehabilitation (Nation et al., 2003). Additionally, theory-driven approaches that were needs-based and individualized were also found to be more effective (Nation et al., 2003). Finally, programs were more effective if they utilized correct timing and treatment dosages and involved highly trained staff (Nation et al., 2003). Similarly, Wilson, Lipsey, and Soydan (2003) sought to explore factors determining the effectiveness of juvenile delinquency programs. Drawing on a meta-analytic review of previous intervention research, these authors found that juvenile delinquency programs were more effective when they accounted for the offender's racial background (Wilson, Lipsey & Soydan, 2003). Interestingly, programs were equally effective for both white and minority population groups when they accounted for this variable. Finally, a significant effect was found for interventions across all population groups, regardless of demographic group (Wilson, Lipsey, & Soydan, 2003). This finding confirms that of Nation and colleagues (2003) and suggests that existing programs do have a significant impact on reducing juvenile delinquency behaviors.

Unfortunately, no known reviews have specifically evaluated the impact of juvenile delinquency programs based on the modalities described in the previous section. The reasons for this are unclear but represent a critical gap in research regarding juvenile delinquency intervention and crime reduction. However, the one critical factor that appears to determine whether or not juvenile offenders ultimately become adult criminals is the timing of the intervention (Lipsey, 2009). In addition to the factors already mentioned, considerable research (e.g., Roundtree, Grenier, & Hoffman, 1993) exists suggesting that earlier interventions are more likely to reduce delinquent behaviors. In addition to an effective therapeutic philosophy, addressing specific delinquency problems earlier in a young adult's life is more likely to result in longitudinal behavioral outcomes (Fagan et al., 2008).

In addition to the behavioral improvements and crime reductions mentioned by previous researchers, effective and timely juvenile delinquency programs may have the ability to cut public funding costs. According to Welsh and Farrington (2011), early interventions may reduce current prison overcrowding and excessive spending on law enforcement. These cost reductions may also have indirect benefits, such as increased funding in areas such as health and education (Welsh & Farrington, 2011). A growing body of research (e.g., Fagan et al., 2008) has illustrated specific ways in which early interventions for juvenile delinquents can reduce government costs and reallocate resources to more critical public sectors. When faced with early intervention or imprisonment, the former appears to be the more cost-effective approach to criminal behavior in the United States.

Policy Implications

According to the Justice Policy Institute (2013), nearly 100,000 young people were arrested and jailed for juvenile offenses in 2008 (the most recent year in which data was available), resulting in an economic burden of approximately $6 billion to the United States government. As a result of the detrimental economic and behavioral consequences of these incarceration decisions, it is apparent that existing policy has not been as effective as it could in rehabilitating offenders and reducing juvenile delinquency costs. The implementation of state and national policy to address some of the more prevailing problems related to juvenile delinquency may be helpful in improving these statistics.

As the key factors determining effective juvenile delinquency interventions have been clearly outlined in previous research (e.g., Fagan et al., 2008), these areas would likely be the most efficacious to begin public policymaking. For example, establishing local initiatives to conduct more needs-based and demographically oriented rehabilitation programs would likely result in longitudinal benefits beyond current juvenile delinquency prevention efforts. Additionally, developing a policy to identify juvenile delinquency earlier and address the individual and environmental factors that contribute to this behavior would likely have a tremendous impact on public prison spending (Lipsey, 1984). Finally, policy that emphasizes positive youth development, rather than punishment-based systems and incarceration, appears to offer the most promising direction for reducing the redirection of public funds from more critical sectors such as education and healthcare.


The purpose of this paper was to explore key issues related to existing juvenile delinquency prevention programs within the United States. Specifically, this paper sought to consider how more efficacious juvenile delinquency programs could reduce public prison spending and redirection of public funds. A critical review of juvenile delinquency literature was first provided, followed by a discussion of potential policy improvements. Based on the evidence presented in this review, it is apparent that earlier interventions, and those which are individualized to specific characteristics of young adults, are more efficacious than generic juvenile delinquency programs. Future research is needed to explore how policy directed at incorporating these determinants of success can reduce public prison spending, as well as reduce adult criminal activity.


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