Each year hundreds of thousands of minors across the country commit crimes large and small and come into contact with the criminal justice system, whether through police, the court system or a probation officer.

Yet despite the millions of tax dollars spent on the criminal justice system, there is scant research focused on the costs and benefits of that system and its long-term effects on youth.

A new study that tracks 1,216 first-time juvenile offenders in Orange County, Philadelphia, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, is part of an effort to change that reality.

The endeavor, dubbed the Crossroads study, has brought together researchers from UC Irvine, Temple University and the University of New Orleans to examine the developmental consequences — such as academic achievement, employment, maturity and mental health — for adolescents who are involved with the criminal justice system.

It also compares outcomes among youth who are formally processed and sanctioned through the court system versus to those who are informally processed through the probation department or community service.

Dr. Elizabeth Cauffman, the lead researcher on the Crossroads study and a professor of psychology and social behavior at UCI, spoke with us about some of the study’s early findings and why biology can change some of our assumptions about those who commit crimes.

The following is an abridged version of our interview — Cauffman’s answers have been edited for length and clarity:

What’s the main goal of this study?

The primary goal of the Crossroads study is to understand what to do with the first time offender who commits a mid-level offense. If you commit murder you’re going to formally processed, and if you’re truant from school, you’re going to be informally processed. But what do you do with the first-time burglar, or the first-time vandalism case? Those tipping-point offenses, that people think, “okay, the kid did something serious,” that’s where the tension is, in trying to make decisions with what to do with the child. People believe that “do the crime, do the time,” and there are people who are second chances kind of people. Let’s give them a second chance and informally process them. This happens every day – kids are making poor choices and risky choices every day that can have legal consequences…and what’s scary is it’s kind of random – there are some offenses where it’s a fifty-fifty shot [between whether they are processed formally or informally].

One aspect of the study looks at how some of the normal patterns of adolescent brain development play into arrests and reoffending among youth. While kids have cognitively developed into adults by age 16, their frontal lobe, which controls impulse control, emotions and perspective, doesn’t fully develop until 25. What does this tell us about juvenile offenders?

Kids know the difference between right and wrong. When you ask a parent, why did your child do that, they typically respond “my kid always says, I don’t know.” They’re not wrong – they knew they shouldn’t have done it but they do it anyway. The cognitive and emotional systems are not developing at the same time. That’s why high rates of risky behavior develop; it’s starting the engine without a skilled driver behind the wheel.

So we see a disconnect between how the system responds to kids. We take a much more punitive approach to crime…most kids will grow up and grow out of crime. There’s a study we did called Pathways to Desistance, [where we followed] 1,300 serious felony offenders for murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, everybody wants to look at what gets kid into crime – the goal was to look at what gets kid out of crime. What we see is a very small percentage of even serious offenders continue committing crimes. Only 9 percent continued committing crime at a very high rate. Nearly 80 percent stopped committing crime. One of the best predictors was developing emotional control.

So do you know if this system, the difference between informal and formal processing, helps or harms that brain development?

We have not studied or asked that question yet. That’s why you need the longer-term data. So we need to look at this study seven years, and right now we have about four years of funding.

There have been several high-profile cases of police shootings of young, unarmed black men that have sparked media attention and the Black Lives Matter movement. In Orange County, many Latino youth may experience the arrest of a friend, or detention by immigration authorities. What does it mean to have so many young people perceive law enforcement and the justice system negatively?

I think this is an extremely important point. One of our papers found that — and it’s not just our research — the more you do not perceive the legal system as fair, the more likely you are to engage in crime. And if there’s this negative belief about the system, it does lead to behaviors that keep you engaged. We found that even if the kid has a friend — you’re my friend and you got arrested — it would make me devalue the system more. So vicarious experiences among adolescents are also important. And we also are seeing that there are these race differences as well. That Latino and African American youth devalue the system more, and rightly so. They’re more likely to be picked up, more likely to have experience and contact with the system.

Do you think there’s enough work being done between legislators. psychologists and social scientists to improve the criminal justice system?

Yes and No — things are happening but we always need to be doing more. […] I think science should be guiding more of our policies. We tend to be reactive rather than proactive; something happens, so we make a law. Megan Kanka, a horrible thing happened to a little girl where she was kidnapped by a neighbor and killed, so we have Megan’s Law. Which on the surface is a great idea. But we have these unintended consequences that are based on knee-jerk case reactions rather than academic science. We now have 16-year-olds who are registered as lewd lascivious behavior and are sexual offenders. Kids who have consensual sex and are caught are registered on Megan’s Law. So sometimes these policies are put in place but we need to have science guide more.

Is there an example of a place where this is being done?

There are lots of places all around the country doing things — right here in Orange County, Judge Maria Hernandez of the Juvenile Court is probably one of the biggest proponents of our research.

[Cauffman describes a study that found parents’ knowledge and participation during their child’s probation may be associated with their child’s success later on. Knowledge of the legal system was lowest among poor parents and those with linguistic barriers.)

We went to probation, presented these findings, and OC Probation, led by Steve Sentman, put together a booklet that’s given to every parent and offer an information session the first time a parent comes to the courtroom. And those are the kinds of things that might seem small and not as grand as a Supreme Court decision, but by changing how we interact with parents and teaching them how to navigate the system, we are creating a more positive climate. And parents are more equipped to handle the system. It’s a small thing.

Why do you think this study is important now – in 2016?

This is very important now because most of the kids who enter the system are low level offenders how have done very basic crimes and how we treat them at our first contact appears to have serious repercussions long term. So we need to spend more time to figure out what we should be doing at the front end so we can keep kids out of the back end.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

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