Juvenile Reentry Research


Juvenile Reentry Programming

Correctional programming in the United States facilitating reentry into society from institutionalization is not only a highly faceted area of study, but also one with massive implications for individuals within the system. An area that is particularly interesting both due to its niche population and the high stakes of its effectiveness are juvenile reentry programs. Due to their neurological immaturity, juvenile offenders are the highest stake offenders, meaning that they are generally the most able to be treated but also at the highest risk of developing into serious lifetime offenders (Greenwood, pp.199). Research has shown that most crimes are the work of  “a small number of persistent offenders, who start offending at an early age” and that only about half of these young offenders were being “successfully rehabilitated” as of 2009 (Sroka et al. pp. 277), thus implying that in order to reduce crime, the juvenile delinquent population is a crucial group to address.

Analysis of the available data on juvenile programming shows that the most effective practices in rehabilitating young offenders for the purpose of successful reentry stand on three pillars: treatment of dynamic risk factors, individualization, and placing focus on higher risk youth. Dynamic risk factors are, according to Baglivio et al. “things which treatment might be able to impact” (pp. 44). These can include anything that can be addressed by intervention, such as substance abuse, low skills, defiant behavior, and/or relationships with delinquent peers. Individualization is simply the idea that treatments should be molded to fit each juvenile, not a simple one-size-fits-all approach. And the idea of intervening strongly on behalf of higher risk youth is effective because that ratio of risk inherent to youth, highest likelihood of recovery and harshest consequences of failure, is even more pressing amongst this population as they have the most dynamic risk factors to be addressed and thus also have an increased likelihood of becoming long-term serious offenders.

Keeping these pillars in mind, much of the research has found two types of interventions to be particularly effective when treating juvenile offenders: cognitive-behavioral and interpersonal skill development. Evaluation of the existing data shows that recidivism is primarily influenced by dynamic factors, most of which can be addressed primarily by one of or a combination of the two previously mentioned methods. There are many different approaches to juvenile reentry, but those that address potentially alterable factors by applying practices under these categories have been found to have the most success.

Before we can explore the efficacy of cognitive-behavioral interventions, we have to define what “cognitive-behavioral” means in this context. As Greenwood succinctly explains in his 2008 article, cognitive-behavioral interventions seek to “change thinking processes” (pp. 200). This approach is based on the idea that it is not events themselves that cause people to feel and act a certain way, but rather the way that they think about said events and interpret them. As such, the cognitive-behavioral approach seeks to give participants the mental strategies and skills to achieve their goals. By working at the mental processes and establishing strategies, the cognitive-behavioral approach helps to give juvenile delinquents the tools they need to participate successfully in society, addressing how they think and process and consequently teaching them how to cope with the antisocial tendencies in their current reactions. As can be derived by the -25.0% effect on crime with the implementation of cognitive-behavioral therapy and the -7.30% effect as a result of aggression replacement training, a program that will be further discussed later on, this approach has a significant effect on juvenile reentry success and recidivism (Greenwood, pp. 193).

In the same manner, we must establish definitions of interpersonal skills and subsequent interventions. Simply put, interpersonal skills are the abilities of one to interact effectively with other members of society, so in turn, interpersonal skill development means fostering the establishment of prosocial capacities and practices. This generally includes learning to deal with conflict and have productive relationships with peers and can also include practical skill-building, such as educational and literacy programs. I will elaborate more on specifically productive programs later, but on the most basic level, interpersonal programming addresses and develops skills, such as literacy, as well as peer interaction and conflict resolution strategies in order to increase the likelihood of successful reentry. The success of this approach, like that of cognitive-behavioral intervention, is evident in the data of Greenwood’s study. Two of these interpersonal approaches, Family Integrated Transitions and education, show strong negative effects on crime with percentages at -13.0% and -17.5% respectively (Greenwood, pp. 193). Additionally, it is important to note the importance of allowing juveniles to grow and become adults psychosocially, providing them ways to hit important growth checkpoints that foster healthy development into mature adults. According to a 2010 study by Steinberg et al., if juveniles are given the opportunity to have healthy psychosocial development, it improves their odds of becoming healthy, productive members of society (pp.3).

There are a plethora of different approaches to juvenile programs, but there are a few in particular that have shown significant success in their negative impact on recidivism. One program that has proven to be very successful, and is perhaps the most statistically supported, is cognitive-behavioral therapy. In their meta-analysis of the effectiveness of cognitive-behavioral therapy in juvenile offenders, Landenberger and Lipsey concluded that it is “a particularly effective intervention for reducing the recidivism of juvenile and adult offenders,” with multiple studies finding that is has around a negative 20 % to 30% impact on recidivism (Pearson et al.; Wilson et al.). One important note about juvenile programming is that it can often be categorized in one of two ways: generic or brand name. The former is the application of general strategies and methods as have been tested by multiple studies, and the latter includes programs developed by a singular team or investigator that continue to develop their program over time. Landenberger and Lipsey also found in their meta-analysis that there is no distinguishable difference in effectiveness between brand name and generic cognitive-behavioral therapy approaches as long as they focus on the highest-risk offenders, implement the program with quality, and include anger management and interpersonal development (pp. 467). Over all, cognitive-behavioral treatment is one of the most, if not the most, supported treatment approach for juvenile offenders.

Another notably successful program is aggression replacement training. This is a brand name approach combining cognitive-behavioral and interpersonal intervention. It seeks to target how the emotional reaction of anger impacts social interactions through group therapeutic work that addresses antisocial tendencies and trying to establish prosocial coping strategies (Greenwood, 200; Landenberger and Lipsey, pp. 454). It primarily consists of three components: 1) anger control, which educates offenders on “what triggers their anger and how to control their reactions,” 2) behavioral skills, which uses a number of methods, such as modelling, role-playing, and performance feedback, to work on pro-social skills, and 3) moral reasoning, where participants process conflicts in the thinking process in “dilemma discussion groups” (Greenwood, pp. 200).  And according to Greenwood’s data, this method has a -7.3% impact on crime when applied to juveniles and, perhaps more importantly, total benefit to cost ratio of 17.3, which is higher than many most other programs with comparable data (Greenwood, pp. 193).

Family programs also seem to have positive effects on reentry and reassimilation after release, particularly the brand name form called Family Integrated Transitions. This is a mainly interpersonal approach that seeks to directly address the dynamic risk factors of offenders who are returning to their communities from different settings of correctional supervision. It uses different forms of therapy to specifically mitigate the risk factors of substance dependency and mental illness. The therapies are as follows: 1) Multisystemic therapy, which lays the therapeutic groundwork in accordance with the socio-ecological circumstances for other interventions by addressing the juvenile’s behaviors and goals, 2) dialectical behavioral therapy to develop productive responses to emotions and practice emotional regulation, and 3) motivational enhancement which serves to engage the participants, including the juvenile and their family, and keep them committed to the programming (Trupin et al., pp. 423). These all give the juvenile strategies and incentives to engage in more productive ways with their family and community at large by emphasizing healthy interactions and goals. There is also a parental training component which facilitates the reduction of dynamic risk factor impact and the building of strong interpersonal relationships at home, creating a healthy developmental for the reentry of the offender.

One very interesting and innovative approach is an educational program instituted and studied by Reed, Miller, and Novosel. Education is a common type of programming in juvenile institutional settings and it reduces post-reentry crime, according to Greenwood, by -17.5% (pp. 193). Reed et al.’s approach to education, however, addresses a very specific area of literacy: document literacy. Document literacy is the ability to understand and complete the forms necessary to participate successfully in conventional society (Reed et al. pp. 36). Because documents are often very different than regular reading due to their being “designed to enable the reading of isolated portions for the purposes of doing and not just reading for understanding,” this can impact the juvenile’s ability to apply the vocational and career training they may receive while incarcerated (Reed et al., pp. 34-36). The study showed that there was a lack of data on the impact of this category of literacy, so they implemented a program in a rural Southeastern United States juvenile facility to study how offenders would respond to a program addressing this issue. Overall, their approach proved to be both easily applicable in the setting and students involved with it did show a better understanding of how to handle these types of documents (Reed et al., pp. 43-47). However, this was a singular, isolated study, so the long-term impact is still unclear.

For all of the programs that have shown success, there are still a few that have been shown to not only be ineffective in preventing juvenile delinquency, but in some cases even increase the risk of delinquency (Greenwood, pp. 186 and 193). These include boot camps, wilderness challenges, and surveillance-oriented parole, which all have 0.0% impact on post-release crime (Greenwood, pp. 193). Evaluating them in terms of the two successful pillars for juvenile rehabilitation, cognitive-behavioral and interpersonal development, it appears that they either do not address or only trivially address both, focusing more on labor-intensive punishment and physical strain. Generally, punitive programs, though there have been some pushes towards increasing their use, prove much less effective in facilitating successful reentry in juvenile offenders than rehabilitative programs (Steinberg et al., pp. 6).

Though data on juvenile offender programming is still in need of methodological improvement and further study, particularly on the longitudinal impact of programs, it is suffice to say that great strides have been made in the field as approaches have developed, creating a few widely supported evidence-based approaches that institutions can use to implement best practices. With the three goals of 1) dynamic risk factor targeting, 2) high-risk offender intervention, and 3) individualized approaches and the two research-based methods of both cognitive-behavioral and interpersonal development, there is a solid foundation on which scholars and professionals can continue to build and hone effective programming for offenders with the goal of giving them the best chance of successful assimilation upon reentry.

Works Cited

Baglivio, Michael T., et al. “A Multilevel Examination of Risk/Need Change Scores, Community Context, and Successful Reentry of Committed Juvenile Offenders.” Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, vol. 15, no. 1, 2017, pp. 38-61.

Greenwood, Peter. “Prevention and Intervention Programs for Juvenile Offenders.” The Future of Children, vol. 18, no. 2, 2008, pp. 185-210.

Reed, Deborah K., Nicole Miller, and Leslie C. Novosel. “Vocabulary Instruction to Support the Career Readiness of Juvenile Offenders.” Journal of Correctional Education, vol. 68, no. 1, 2017, pp. 32.

Landenberger, Nana A. and Mark W. Lipsey. “The positive effects of cognitive–behavioral programs for offenders: A meta-analysis of factors associated with effective treatment.” Journal of Experimental Criminology, Volume 1, Issue 4, December 2005, pp. 451–476

Steinberg, Laurence, He L. Chung, and Michelle Little. “Reentry of Young Offenders from the Justice System: A Developmental Perspective.” Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, vol. 2, no. 1, 2004, pp. 21-38.

Pearson, F. S., Lipton, D. S., Cleland, C. M. & Yee, D. S. (2002). The effects of behavioral/cognitive–behavioral programs on recidivism. Crime and Delinquency 48(3), 476–496.

Sroka, Ina M., Simon D. Isemann, and Eva Walther. “With Or without them: Improving Self-Control in Juvenile Offenders.” Basic and Applied Social Psychology, vol. 39, no. 5, 2017, pp. 277-286.

Trupin, Eric J. “Family Integrated Transitions: A Promising Program for Juvenile Offenders with

Co-Occurring Disorders.” Journal of child & adolescent substance abuse, Volume 20, Issue 5, 2011, pp. 421-436, doi: 10.1080/1067828X.2011.614889

Wilson, D. B., Bouffard, L. A. & MacKenzie, D. L. (2005). A quantitative review of structured,

group-oriented, cognitive–behavioral programs for offenders. Journal of Criminal Justice and Behavior 32(2), 172–204.