The University of Chicago News Office
December 21, 1998 Press Contact: William Harms
(773) 702-8356

Juvenile delinquents respond to punishment just as adult criminals do, University of Chicago study shows

Increased punishment of juveniles reduces the amount of crime they commit in a way similiar to the impact punishment has for adults, according to a new paper by Steven Levitt, Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago.

“The evidence suggests that juvenile crime is responsive to harsher sanctions,” Levitt writes. “The estimated decrease in crime associated with incarcerating an additional juvenile is at least as large as the corresponding reduction in crime for adult offenders.”

His article, “Juvenile Crime and Punishment,” based on juvenile statistics between 1978 and 1993, was published in the December issue of the Journal of Political Economy. It is one of the first major studies of the impact of punishment on juvenile crime.

Levitt said that the impact of punishment on preventing crime among juveniles is only one of many considerations politicians and others must make in determining if changes need to be made in the current laws.

“Any public policy recommendation must balance the benefits of reduced crime against the costs associated with holding juveniles, both in the short term and the long term,” he adds.

Financially, it costs much more to detain a juvenile than an adult, he points out. The average cost of holding a teenager in a juvenile facility was $33,000 in 1990, the last year data was available. The average cost of holding a adult prisoner was about $23,000 in 1992, the most recent year for which data is available.

For his study, Levitt analyzed how crime changes around the age at which offenders transition from the juvenile courts to the adult criminal justice system.

In states where punishments for adults and juveniles are comparable, becoming an adult has little impact on criminal involvement. In states that punish adults more harshly than juveniles, violent crime drops 25 percent in the first year an individual is treated as an adult by the courts. Property crime falls 10 to 15 percent in the first year of adulthood in those states that punish adults more harshly than juveniles.

Despite differences in punishments among states overall, juvenile crime has been increasing while adult crime has been decreasing. Over the period of the study, arrests of juveniles for violent crime rose three times faster than similar arrests for adults. The divergence in murder arrests is even more striking. Juvenile murder arrests almost tripled, whereas adult murder arrests actually declined.

The results of this study provide a partial explanation for those disturbing trends, Levitt writes. Between 1978 and 1993, punishment per crime fell by 20 percent for juveniles but increased 60 percent for adults. “Differences in punishment accounts for more than half of the observed differences between juvenile and adult violent crime trends over this period,” Levitt says.

Levitt cautioned that politicians need more information before changing laws regarding juvenile justice. The study was unable to find, for instance, a direct link between strong juvenile punishment and reduction in criminal activity among those teenagers when they became adults. That link needs further study, he said.
Last modified at 03:51 PM CST on Wednesday, June 14, 2000.

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