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Under the radar or under arrest: How does contact with the juvenile justice system affect delinquency and academic outcomes?


Although many studies have found that arrested youth are more likely than non-arrested youth to experience later maladjustment, methodological limitations restrict the generalizations of prior work. Perhaps the most noteworthy limitation in prior work is the possibility of selection effects, with arrested youth likely to have very different psychological and behavioral profiles pre-justice system contact than non-arrested youth. This leaves us wondering whether the observed maladjustment is due to the type of adolescent who comes to the attention of law enforcement or due the type of justice system interventions that arrested youth experience.

This study overcomes these limitations by comparing the outcomes of demographically similar male adolescents who have committed the same crimes but who differ with regard to whether they were "caught" for their crimes. Using propensity score matching to compare arrested and non-arrested youth, I investigated whether contact with the justice system does, in fact, contribute to school-related outcomes, substance use, and delinquency and whether these relations vary based on whether arrested youth are formally processed or diverted from the system.

When selection effects are taken into consideration, results indicate that contact with the juvenile justice system does not have a universally harmful effect on development. Diversion (informally processing youth) actually deters future offending, school misconduct, school truancy, and school suspensions. However, both diverted and formally processed youth, regardless of their actual antisocial and illegal behavior, are more likely than no-contact youth to be arrested during the study period, according to official court records. The risk of re-arrest is highest for formally processed youth. Formally processed youth are also more likely than no-contact and diverted youth to be transferred to an alternative or continuation school.

Taken together, results suggest that increased justice system surveillance might improve school performance and deter offending, but it also might lead to more contact with the system. Although an adolescent's first arrest might lead to positive outcomes in the immediate future, the effects of subsequent contacts are unknown. As such, the data suggest that the default policy should be to divert low-level first-time offenders and keep the justice system's involvement to a minimum.

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