STUDY: Throwing Kids In Jail Makes Crime Worse, Ruins Lives

Mass incarceration of American youth is actually making the country’s crime problem worse, according to a new study of Chicago youth incarceration.

The study, conducted by Anna Aizer of Brown University and Joseph Doyle, Jr. of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, examined roughly 35,000 former Chicago public school students who had now grown up. Aizer and Doyle picked Chicago because its random judge assignment system for juvenile cases allowed them to develop a way of studying truly random (and hence representative) samples of juvenile offenders by identifying judges more likely to hand down harsher sentences.

This method of identifying incarcerated youth allows them to compare groups of kids who committed crimes and went to jail with youth who committed similar offenses but didn’t do time. This helps eliminate the “if they went to jail, it’s because they were always criminals” explanation for why kids who go to jail might return as adults.

After developing this random sampling technique, and controlling for confounding factors like race and sex, Aizer and Doyle compared the imprisoned and non-imprisoned kids along two lines: high school graduation rates and adult incarceration. Unsurprisingly, going to jail as a kid has “strong negative effects” on a child’s chance to get an education: youth that went to prison were 39 percentage points less likely to finish high school than other kids who from the same neighborhood. Even young offenders who weren’t imprisoned were better off; they were thirteen points more likely to finish high school than their incarcerated peers.


More surprisingly, given that prison is supposed to deter crime, going to jail also made kids more likely to offend again. Young offenders who were incarcerated were a staggering 67 percent more likely to be in jail (again) by the age of 25 than similar young offenders who didn’t go to prison. Moreover, a similar pattern held true for serious crimes. Aizer and Doyle found that incarcerated youth were more likely to commit “homicide, violent crime, property crime and drug crimes” than those that didn’t serve time.

These findings are particularly troubling given that kids are often sent to the criminal justice system for relatively minor offenses. This phenomenon, dubbed the “school-to-prison pipeline,” involves the use of harsh, often criminal, punishment for bad school behavior and truancy, particularly in low-income and minority schools. Even the indiscriminate use of less significant punishments, like suspension, are associated with higher rates of criminality among students.

Some jurisdictions are starting to pull back the pedal on youth incarceration. Georgia recently passed a law that would dramatically reduce the number of kids sent to prison. An odd national coalition made up of progressives, racial justice advocates, anti-drug war campaigners, right-wing evangelicals, and libertarians are pushing prison reform laws around the country.