March 19, 2009
Most adolescents referred to long-term group homes in Los Angeles County after being charged with a serious offense reported they were still involved with crime or drugs seven years later, according to a new RAND Corporation study.
The bleak findings suggest there is a need to improve juvenile justice rehabilitation programs, according to the report published online by the American Journal of Public Health.
Studies rarely track juvenile offenders for so long so that little is known about the prognosis for juvenile offenders nationally. However, the youths in this study were similar to the national profile of youths in juvenile correctional facilities and a similar study conducted in Chicago found similar mortality rates.
Researchers studied 449 adolescents aged 13 to 17 who were referred to group homes by judges in Los Angeles County between February 1999 and May 2000. The participants were interviewed periodically over the next seven years to assess how their lives had progressed.
When attempts were made to re-contact these young people in 2007, researchers learned that 12 of the young people had died, including seven from gunshot wounds. Among the 383 participants who completed the final interview, 36 percent had used hard drugs in the past year and 27 percent reported five or more symptoms of substance dependence.
Among the group that completed the final interview, 66 percent reported they had done something illegal, other than using alcohol or drugs, in the previous year. Thirty-seven percent reported being arrested within the previous year and 25 percent had been in jail or prison every day for the previous 90 days.
“We cannot say that these group homes failed to improve anyone’s life, but the large number of poor outcomes we observed raises questions about whether the juvenile justice system is as effective in rehabilitating delinquent youths as it should be,” said Rajeev Ramchand, the study’s lead author and an associate social scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization.
The group homes may have contributed to a few bright spots in the study’s findings. About one-fifth of the participants reported they were living productive lives -- neither criminally active nor in jail. Among the group that completed the final interview, 58 percent of the participants had graduated high school or obtained a GED and 63 percent reported working at a job in the previous year.
The RAND study is one of the largest and longest efforts to follow juvenile offenders who had been referred to group homes for rehabilitation.
The RAND study was supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Participants were recruited from all three juvenile detention facilities in Los Angeles County. Researchers sought participation from adolescents referred to any of the seven largest group homes that had contracts with the Los Angeles County Probation Department to provide long-term resident care, typically for periods of 9 to 12 months.
Each of the programs offered a range of services, including schooling, substance abuse treatment or education, family therapy, vocational training and other forms of counseling.
The project was conducted within the RAND Safety and Justice Program, which conducts public policy research on corrections, policing, public safety and occupational safety.