How Does Incarcerating Young People Affect Their Adult Health Outcomes?

Published in: Pediatrics, v. 139, no. 2, February 2017, p. e2 0162624; doi:10.1542/peds.2016-2624

Posted on on March 13, 2017

by Elizabeth S. Barnert, Rebecca N. Dudovitz, Bergen B. Nelson, Tumaini Coker, Christopher Biely, Ning Li, Paul J. Chung

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Background and Objectives

Despite the widespread epidemic of mass incarceration in the US, relatively little literature exists examining the longitudinal relationship between youth incarceration and adult health outcomes. We sought to quantify the association of youth incarceration with subsequent adult health outcomes.


We analyzed data from 14,344 adult participants in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health. We used weighted multivariate logistic regressions to investigate the relationship between cumulative incarceration duration (none, <1 month, 1–12 months, and >1 year) before Wave IV (ages 24–34 years) and subsequent adult health outcomes (general health, functional limitations, depressive symptoms, and suicidal thoughts). Models controlled for Wave I (grades 7–12) baseline health, sociodemographics, and covariates associated with incarceration and health.


A total of 14.0% of adults reported being incarcerated between Waves I and IV. Of these, 50.3% reported a cumulative incarceration duration of <1 month, 34.8% reported 1 to 12 months, and 15.0% reported >1 year. Compared with no incarceration, incarceration duration of < 1 month predicted subsequent adult depressive symptoms (odds ratio [OR] = 1.41; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.11–1.80; P = .005). A duration of 1 to 12 months predicted worse subsequent adult general health (OR = 1.48; 95% CI, 1.12–1.96; P = .007). A duration of >1 year predicted subsequent adult functional limitations (OR = 2.92; 95% CI, 1.51–5.64; P = .002), adult depressive symptoms (OR = 4.18; 95% CI, 2.48–7.06; P < .001), and adult suicidal thoughts (OR = 2.34; 95% CI, 1.09–5.01; P = .029).


Cumulative incarceration duration during adolescence and early adulthood is independently associated with worse physical and mental health later in adulthood. Potential mechanisms merit exploration.

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