Post #238

900 words; 4 minutes to read


Summary: A study of 1600 young men in Quebec shows that imprisonment can badly interfere with normal life development, leading to increased recidvism.

A very high proportion of the people in jail or in trouble with the law are young.  A recent  study by Isabelle Fortin-Dufour and colleagues in Quebec (also in book form) found that while males between 20 and 39 years of age are only 17% of the Canadian population, they make up 58% of those in the provincial and federal correction system.

It has long been known that young men account for a very high proportion of criminal activity, and also that criminality tends to decline with age.  This study asks what factors might foster or impede desistance from crime as people age, and how our policies might make things better or worse.

1600 young men in Quebec

The researchers followed all men (about 1600) between the ages of 18–34 years incarcerated for at least 6 months in a provincially run institution in the province of Quebec, Canada, during the period from 1 April 2010, to 31 March 2011.  This group was followed for 5 years, until 31 December 2015.  Many of these young men had already been in jail or juvenile detention before the study began.

Our findings show that only 37% of our original cohort were able to avoid reincarceration during the follow-up period. The 1,004 young adults who can be considered to be recidivists were sentenced for 2,528 offences during the approximately 5 years of follow-up. Some were reincarcerated only once, but one young man was incarcerated 12 times during those years. This suggests that it is difficult for young men who have experienced imprisonment to desist from crime.

On average, those in the sample were out of jail for about 1100 days (more than 2 ½ years) before another incarceration. The mean number of offences committed by those in the sample during the observation period was 4.4.  60% had at least one violent offence.

Factors that increase chances of being imprisoned

The challenge of desisting from crime is not the same for all young adults and it is strongly affected by things beyond the control of the individual.  Single men were convicted again 9 months earlier than others.  For Indigenous men (7% of the sample) it was 1 year earlier, and 16 months earlier for those with very low formal education.  (More than 85% had no more than a secondary education.)

Very few of those incarcerated  have regular employment; most are unemployed or on social assistance.  They are much more likely to have substance abuse issues.  On the other hand, for those with a violent offence, often the group most feared, reconviction was on average only 3 months earlier, suggesting that violent behaviour alone is not necessarily a significant risk factor.

Age also mattered.  An older age at release is associated with lower probabilities of reincarceration during the follow-up period. This is not a small point: in spite of this sample being relatively close in age, an age effect on reincarceration remained significant.

Supervision produces bad results

Perhaps the most striking finding in the study was that mandated community supervision after release from prison (probation) is also predictive of being reincarcerated.  Those on probation were nearly twice as likely to have another prison term than those who were not.

Our data suggest that perhaps it is time for probation and parole agents to consider ways in which they could adapt their interventions to meet the risk and needs of young adults in the community who are going through a difficult life transition with important life choices. Finding the balance between community risk management and social intervention can be a difficult act with this age group who remain prone to impulsive decisions, with limited coping skills, and focused on immediate gratifications.

In short, our current policies are not successful in helping young men desist from crime and create pro-social lives.  The results of that failure are not good.  The authors point out that over the last 10 years, the crime rate in Canada has decreased by almost 30%, while the costs associated with the Canadian correctional services have increased by 60%…

Challenges to desistance

Desistance from crime, the authors report, is not a stable state, it is gradual and ambivalent and the journey towards desistance appears to involve -or benefit from- some form of assistance.  Many life events can contribute to desistance, and many of these positive life events happen during the period from 18 to 35.  That is when most young people create careers, find life partners, and start a family.

Yet incarceration might be particularly damaging for young men just because it limits their ability to perform the adult roles that promote desistance.  It is well known  that being jailed has a negative effect on later employment and earnings, thus reinforcing poverty.  It’s pretty hard to sustain a relationship when you are in prison.  The whole criminal justice process, from arrest to bail conditions to court appearances to sentencing often strains connections with significant others  such as family.  At the same time it can entrench associations with those experiencing similar difficulties, who may act as negative influences.

One of the strongest findings in the criminology literature is that participation in crime tends to decline with age.  But this study shows that our current policies may actually work against that goal because they do not take enough account of life cycle patterns.


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