Youth who are involved with the criminal justice system are at greater risk for early death than their peers. There is a large body of research behind this knowledge. However, less research has been done about the extent to which youth are involved with the criminal justice system, and if there are differences between mortality rates for youth who are arrested versus those who are sentenced into the adult justice system, and those who hit different stops on the spectrum in between.
This is the basis of the new study, “Mortality of Youth Offenders Along a Continuum of Justice System Involvement,” recently published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. The goal was to “test associations between the level of involvement in the justice system and youth mortality,” with researchers anticipating that early death would incrementally increase as youth moved along the continuum. They also hypothesized that “black male youth would be at greater risk for mortality than other youth at comparable levels of system involvement” since involvement with the justice system and “risk of violent death are disproportionately experienced by black youth.”
To determine trends, researchers looked back on 49,479 youth offenders’ records, spanning years 1999-2011, and identified race/ethnicity, gender and age at first arrest as key data points. The primary focus of the study was then sorting participants along the “continuum of justice system involvement,” wherein the most involvement the youth had with the juvenile justice system was that they were
- Arrested, where youth were “referred to juvenile court but were not detained, incarcerated or transferred to adult courts”
- Detained, or held in a county-run detention center before a hearing
- Incarcerated, where youth were held for months or years in a juvenile prison facility
- Transferred out of the juvenile justice system and “associate services” and tried as an adult
Within the sample that researchers examined, 62 percent of youth fell into the “arrested” category on the continuum, 29 percent had been detained, 5 percent were incarcerated and 2 percent were transferred. A majority of participants were male, and as the severity of involvement with the justice system increased, the likelihood that the youth was male increased as well.
Average youth age at first arrest ranged between 13.9 and 14.9 years old across all categories. Finally, “black youth comprised 47.5% of arrested, 52.5% of detained, 58.4% of incarcerated, and 68.5% of youth transferred to adult courts.” Since residents of Marion County, the source of the sample population, are only 28.4 percent black, this data shows that “black youth were disproportionately represented at each point along the justice involvement continuum.”
Researchers concluded that “findings support past research showing that youth offenders face a significantly greater risk of death than community youth.” Of the early deaths faced by the youth in question, a majority were found to be homicide, with drug overdose as the second leading cause.
The study then discusses the connection between race, gender and early mortality, which was nuanced within discussions of different statistical models researchers used. As mentioned, these issues have proven to disproportionately affect black male youth. However, ultimately researchers conclude that data from this study points to higher early mortality rates, “regardless of race/ethnicity,” as youth involvement with the system moves along the spectrum and becomes more severe. For more details on the findings, read the whole study here.