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Core Principles for Reducing Recidivism and Improving Other Outcomes for Youth in the Juvenile Justice System

Published Jul 28, 2014, Council of State Governments Justice Center: Elizabeth Seigle, Nastassia Walsh, Josh Weber

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This white paper is written to guide leaders across all branches of government; juvenile justice system administrators, managers, and front-line staff; and researchers, advocates, and other stakeholders on how to better leverage existing research and resources to facilitate system improvements that reduce recidivism and improve other outcomes for youth involved in the juvenile justice system.

The last two decades have produced remarkable changes in state and local juvenile justice systems. An overwhelming body of research has emerged, demonstrating that using secure facilities as a primary response to youth’s delinquent behavior generally produces poor outcomes at high costs. Drawing on this evidence, the MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change and the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative have provided the field with models for reform, research-based guidance, and technical assistance that has transformed many state and local juvenile justice systems. In part due to these efforts, between 1997 and 2011, youth confinement rates declined by almost 50 percent. During the same time period, arrests of juveniles for violent crimes also fell by approximately 50 percent, to their lowest level in over 30 years.

The importance and value of these achievements can’t be overstated. At the same time, these trends alone are not sufficient for policymakers to assess the effectiveness of their state and local governments’ juvenile justice systems. They must also know whether youth diverted from confinement, as well as youth who return to their communities after confinement, have subsequent contact with the justice system. In addition to recidivism data, policymakers should have information about what services, supports, and opportunities young people under system supervision need, whether these needs are being met, and to what extent these young people are succeeding as a result.

Yet policymakers often lack the information they need to determine whether youth who do come in contact with the system emerge from their experience better off, worse off, or unchanged, particularly in the long term. Twenty percent of state juvenile corrections agencies don’t track recidivism data for youth at all. Of the states that do track recidivism, the majority doesn’t consider the multiple ways a youth may have subsequent contact with the justice system, which range from rearrest, readjudication, or reincarceration within the juvenile justice system to offenses that involve them with the adult corrections system. For example, most states that track recidivism are unlikely to capture as youth recidivism data an event such as a 17-year-old released from a juvenile facility who is incarcerated in an adult facility as an 18-year-old. Additionally, the vast majority of states doesn’t track whether youth who came into contact with the system ultimately stay in school, earn a degree, or find sustainable employment.

To the extent that state and local governments are able to measure their juvenile justice systems’ impact on rearrest, readjudication, and reincarceration rates, the results have been discouraging. It’s not uncommon for rearrest rates for youth returning from confinement to be as high as 75 percent within three years of release, and arrest rates for higher-risk youth placed on probation in the community are often not much better. While there have been promising advances in the field, few juvenile justice systems can point to significant and sustained progress in reducing these recidivism rates.




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Models for Change is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, website operated by Justice Policy Institute.