Study finds youth detention may not reduce criminal behavior

Monday, December 8, 2003

ST. LOUIS -- A new study of juvenile cases in St. Louis suggests that time in detention may do nothing to reduce criminal behavior.

The study by the University of Missouri-St. Louis found that in cases involving some offenses, youth who were locked up appeared to be more likely to reoffend than those who spent no time in detention.

Researchers examined 3,690 court referrals involving 1,641 youths from January 2001 to June of this year.

The findings may add momentum to a movement in St. Louis and St. Louis County to find alternatives to juvenile detention for some categories of offenders, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

Scott Decker, a University of Missouri at St. Louis professor who co-authored the study, said rehabilitation programs would be preferable to detention in many cases. Offenders could be monitored as they remain in the community, or have court contact before they resort to serious offenses.

"There needs to be a host of prevention efforts," he said.

That notion has the support of some officials at the St. Louis Family Court, many of whom met last week to review the study.

Family court officials and police are looking for ways to reduce confinement rates among minority youth, although some said they doubted the public would support diverting offenders from detention.

St. Louis police Capt. Eugene Reece said the public cannot be protected if juveniles see no consequences for their actions. But the study suggests detention may not protect the public from certain lesser felonies.

For such crimes as stealing, drug possession, assault and truancy, the study could find no deterrent effect for detention. In fact, the study found, youths charged with certain automobile offenses appear more likely to repeat crimes if sent to detention.

Allen Irving, who runs the St. Louis Juvenile Detention Center, said he has doubts about the shock value of putting youths behind bars.

"It's more devastating in the first few days," he said. "Once they become accustomed to it, it loses its effectiveness."

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