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Review: What Doesn’t Work in Preventing and Reducing Juvenile Delinquency

Reviewer: Sarah Krantz, Esq.

Article to be Reviewed: Howell, James C. “What Doesn’t Work in Preventing and Reducing Juvenile Delinquency.” Preventing and Reducing Juvenile Delinquency: A Comprehensive Framework130-147 (2003) http://www.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/upm-binaries/3323_Howell_Capter7FINAL.pdf.


D.A.R.E. Programs

D.A.R.E (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) is an ineffective program that continues to be called the more successful intervention of all of the ineffective delinquency prevention programs. In 1997, more than 20 evaluations found that any small, positive effects of the program dissipated over time. While the program claims to be rooted in deterrence, the three most rigorous studies[i] showed conclusively that D.A.R.E was not effective. As of 2003, the program was revised to provide follow-up sessions as students got older. The upgraded version of the program was not studied in the article being reviewed.

Zero-Tolerance Policies

Currently, zero-tolerance policies are mostly found in schools to deter students from committing crimes. However, zero-tolerance polices are not effective because they call for immediate and sever punishment without the ability to take into account the student, the students life circumstance, or the way in which the crime arose. There is also a problem with the equal application of the policy that makes it lose its credibility, therefore, undermining healthy social development and potentially encouraging delinquency.


Punishment serves only the purpose of “justice;” it is a penalty for an individual who has wronged society. Punishment does not appear to make a significant contribution to the reduction of recidivism and some forms of punishment can actually increase the chances that a juvenile would recidivate. Neither the certainty, nor the severity, of punishment decreases recidivism among most juveniles. In a 1990 study, [ii]  it was found that adolescents who believed that they were more likely to be caught committed more, rather than fewer, subsequent offenses. This may be because punishment currently overestimates the judgmental maturity of adolescents.

Scared Straight

Scared straight programs focus on literally scaring youths out of delinquency. However, on average, these programs increased recidivism by 12 percent. Scared Straight programs survived the negative evaluations, in part because they “reinvented” themselves by downplaying the scare tactics and emphasizing their shift in emphasis to the provision of education for youngsters about crime consequences.

Boot Camps

Correctional boot camps were first established in the adult criminal justice system in 1983. After being studied in 1994, researchers concluded that recidivism rates for adults in boot camps were comparable to those for adults in traditional prisons. They also saw no decrease in drug or alcohol abuse.

The use of boot camps for juveniles began in the 1990s in Ohio, Colorado, and Alabama. An evaluation of these states’ programs showed that boot camp participants at all three sites were slightly more likely to reoffend after release than were their control group counterparts. Juvenile boot camps have also been shown to produce high levels of anxiety, which has been a strong predictor of recidivism.

Large Custodial Facilities

Large custodial juvenile corrections facilities are not effective in rehabilitating juvenile offenders. Post-release recidivism ranges from about 55 percent to 90 percent and prior placement in a juvenile correctional facility is one of the strongest predictor of returning. To date, the most comprehensive follow-up study conducted of paroled youths involved inmates released from the California Youth Authority, which followed parolees for approximately 15 years after their releases in the 1960s. More than 90 percent continued to be arrested well into their adult years. In fact, the longer a juvenile is in a facility the more likely that he or she will reoffend after release.

There is also evidence[iii] that incarceration can cause youths to become disoriented, estranged, and alienated, which may increase the likelihood of suicidal behaviors. Several studies have shown that for juveniles, incarceration in small correctional units and placement in nonresidential programs with treatment orientations are more humane and effective than incarceration in large custodial facilities.

Curfew Laws

Curfew laws do not seem to be effective in reducing serious or violent juvenile crime. In a national study[iv] of 57 large cities where curfew laws were in place, it was found that the laws did not cause a reduction in juvenile arrests in any serious crime category.[v] Nighttime curfew laws appear to be no more effective than daytime curfew laws. Curfew laws cannot reasonably be expected to reduce violent juvenile crimes significantly because, ironically, most of them are imposed at a time—late at night—when few juvenile violent offenses occur.

Disputed Program Interventions

  • Programs that involve large groups of antisocial juveniles may not be effective because this can create intense group interactions among homogeneous groups of juveniles. This furthers the problem that the group is trying to alleviate. These same results can occur when you put juveniles with any similar issue together—it typically does not work. When it does work, there must be a skilled therapist close by who can manage the counseling to ensure no negative reinforcements are being created between the juveniles.
  • Results for juveniles in drug and alcohol programs have been mixed as to whether they work or reduce delinquency. The main issue with these programs is the failure to address the family, school, and community problems that are strongly associated with juvenile drug use.
  • To date, few studies have been conducted on the effectiveness of electronic monitoring of juveniles and its link to the reduction of recidivism. However, one study in 1991[vi] showed a higher recidivism rate for those who had been electronically monitored compared to the control group, while a similar study in 1992[vii] reported no difference between the two groups. Thus, there is no clear link to electronic monitoring actually reducing crime. Ultimately, electronic monitoring is primarily focused on controlling offenders rather than rehabilitating them.
  • There is no evidence that traditional clinical sex offender treatment reduces recidivism or converts high-risk sex offenders to individuals who are at low risk for recidivism.
  • Punitive restitution in the form of community service does not appear to be rehabilitative in any important sense, and may put youngsters in harm’s way. Use of restitution in conjunction with probation and treatment measures produces much more positive effects.
  • Parole or probation can be effective when it is combined with programs that help offenders make the transition from confinement to independent living. This intervention strategy—known as aftercare—appears to be particularly effective with intensive supervision particularly in a step-up and step-down model. Aftercare that incorporates principles of effective programming can produce large positive short-term effects.
  • The community approach known as “balanced and restorative justice” is punitive towards juvenile offenders and has a strong rooting in the concerns of the victims. Its values are linked to the concept of ensuring that offenders make things right with society and the concept that offenders must pay for having harmed someone. The problem with this approach is that it assumes the ineffectiveness of the juvenile justice system and emphasizes punishment, basically eliminating the ability to rehabilitate.

In conclusion, punishment is not effective in reducing recidivism. A number of juvenile offender rehabilitation programs and strategies clearly do not work, and some of the more punitive ones may actually increase recidivism. To see a change in the system, there must be a change in the policies or practice of the system. This would take a concerted effort on the part of many people who affect the way the system works every day.



[i] Clayton,Cattarello, & Johnstone, 1996; Rosenbaum,Flewelling, Bailey, Ringwalt, & Wilkinson, 1994; Rosenbaum & Hanson, 1999.

[ii] Schneider 1990, evaluation of OJJDPs national restitution program

[iii] McArthur, (1974)

[iv] McDowall, Loftin, and Wiersema (2000)

[v] The researchers note that “any impacts of the laws were small, and they applied only to a few offenses,” such as burglary, larceny, and simple assault.

[vi] Office of the Criminal Justice Coordinator, (1991).

[vii] Wiebush,Wagner, Prestine, and Baird (1992).