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Adolescent Protective and Risk Factors for Incarceration through Early Adulthood


With 2.3 million individuals incarcerated in the United States, incarceration remains a pressing social influence on health. While risk factors for incarceration are known, research has been slow to identify protective factors. Characterizing adolescent protective and risk factors for incarceration outcomes can inform interventions to prevent incarceration. Using survey data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, we tested the influence of adolescent risk and protective factors for incarceration of young people. We used ordinal logistic regressions, investigating the relationship between adolescent characteristics (wave I, grades 7–12) with two outcomes: incarceration onset (no incarceration, onset of incarceration as a juvenile, and onset of incarceration as an adult) and incarceration frequency (never incarcerated, incarcerated once, incarcerated more than once) during adolescence and into adulthood (N = 12,136, wave IV, ages 24–32). Adolescent protective factors against incarceration onset and higher incarceration frequency centered on education, including a higher grade point average and a higher likelihood of having future plans to attend college. Risk factors included disruptive behavior, physical or sexual abuse in childhood, parental incarceration, and living with a stepfather figure. Stratified analyses suggested that Latinos may have unique risk profiles compared to African American and White youth. The educational system may be a locus for protective interventions promoting academic achievement and educational aspirations. Understanding both incarceration risk and protective factors may allow interventions to be tailored appropriately.

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