Public Release: 

Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Achieving Positive Outcomes After Detention for Youth

The JAMA Network Journals

Many delinquent youth who serve time in detention fail to achieve long-term positive outcomes, including getting a high school diploma, having a job, abstaining from substance abuse and desisting from criminal activity, according to a new study published online by JAMA Pediatrics that highlights the racial/ethnic disparities in reaching these milestones.

Most delinquent youth eventually return to their community after being incarcerated but they are at risk of poor outcomes in adulthood because of limited support, lack of education and past criminality that can limit their opportunities for jobs. But little is known about positive outcomes for young people after detention.

Linda A. Teplin, Ph.D., of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago, and coauthors examined eight positive outcomes among delinquent youth five and 12 years after detention and they focused on sex and racial/ethnic differences in the results.

The eight positive outcomes were: educational attainment (i.e., high school degree or equivalent); gainful activity (i.e., currently in school or employed); desistance from criminal activity (i.e., no criminal offenses, arrests or incarcerations); interpersonal functioning (i.e., no domestic violence); parenting responsibility (i.e., biological parent caring for a child); residential independence (i.e., not transient or homeless); mental health (i.e., no psychotic, mood, anxiety or behavioral disorders); and abstaining from substance abuse (i.e., no substance use disorder and no illicit drug use).

The study included 1,829 youth at baseline (average age almost 15) and the study ended with 83 percent of the original sample (944 males and 576 females with an average age of nearly 28).

The authors report 12 years after detention that:

  • Females were more likely than males to have positive outcomes for gainful activity, desistance from criminal activity, residential independence, parenting responsibility and mental health.
  • Only 21.9 percent of males and 54.7 percent of females had achieved more than half the outcomes.

Among the men, non-Hispanic white males were more likely to achieve most of the positive outcomes. For example, 12 years after detention, non-Hispanic white males were nearly three times more likely to achieve educational attainment compared with African-American and Hispanic men. They also were 2 to 5 times more likely to have gainful activity compared with African-American and Hispanic men. African-American men fared the worst with few positive outcomes, according to the results.

Limitations of the study included self-reported data. The authors suggest delinquent females may fare better because delinquency is generally confined to adolescence and does not stretch into adulthood.

"Positive adult outcomes after incarceration are the exception and not the rule, particularly for racial/ethnic minorities. To succeed, delinquent youth must be helped not only to desist from crime but also to overcome barriers to social stability and employment," the article concludes.###

(JAMA Pediatr. Published online December 19, 2016. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2016.3260; available pre-embargo at the For The Media website.)

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