The Normative Nature of Youth Delinquency

The Justice Policy Institute, a Washington, DC based non-profit dedicated to reducing the use of incarceration and the justice system and promoting policies that improve the well‐being of all people and communities, recently released a report Sticker Shock: Calculating the Full Price Tag for Youth Incarceration and recommended steps to more effective ways to help young people successfully transition to adulthood, hold young people accountable for delinquency and keep our communities safe. To achieve those goals, and reduce society’s short and long‐term costs, the JPI report suggested expanding the definition of costs and benefits in our justice system and broadening the picture of how we account for success in juvenile justice.

 “We could send a juvenile justice youth to Harvard for what we pay for incarceration, and we don’t get very good outcomes.”Gladys Carrion, Director, New York State Office of Children and Family Services ,

One of the major JPI recommendations includes invest appropriately in juvenile justice, particularly in the right parts of the youth‐serving system. Given the huge costs associated when the system incarcerates a youth (average cost of $274 per day), policymakers need to invest more in alternatives to incarceration, diversion, and primary prevention, and they should be investing earlier on in interventions that keep youth out of the justice system altogether. The adolescent development research suggests that young people engage in delinquency because it is normative, and we need to provide the right services to the right young people at right time.

Note the findings carefully. “Research suggests young people engage in delinquency because it is normative” — further corroboration of the efficacy of the Cure Violence health approach. Prolonged exposure to delinquency and violence results in the spread and transmission of those behaviors. Through long-term exposure, those behaviors become individual and community norms and require interruption before they will be changed.  Recidivism rates clearly show incarceration rarely results in individual behavior change or community norm change.

To change a culture, credible messengers who are trusted by the community, must work with high risk youth to provide advice, counsel, mentoring, alternatives to delinquency or violence, leading by example within the community to ultimately effect norm change.  As Dr. Slutkin often says, “trained community health workers who are credible and trusted need to go deep, to immerse themselves within the community for a substantial period of time in order to effect individual behavior and community norm change.”