How Harshly Should Society Punish Young Lawbreakers?

Do tough prisons deter young offenders from repeating crimes? Crime poses enormous social and economic costs. It is important to understand which incarceration conditions can reduce—or worsen—reoffending, especially for young offenders. In new research Giulia Lotti considers the outcomes of contrasting incarceration environments.

On the one hand, tough policies and harsh sentences may discourage the general population from embarking on criminal activity or deter the individual offender from committing new crimes in the future. On the other hand, severe punishment may instead have a negative effect on offenders who are incarcerated, weakening their already fragile links with society, nourishing negative networks, and, as a result, increasing the likelihood of future criminal activity.

Therefore, empirical testing is required to better understand how different types of incarceration affect recidivism. Thanks to three quasi-natural experiments and access to the detailed criminal records of 6,444 offenders in the UK, Lotti tested the effects of harsh and rehabilitative criminal incarceration practices on recidivism. Do young people who spend time in a rehabilitative facility fair better after release, or those held in a more punitive environment?

Young offenders sent to the more rehabilitative youth facilities became less likely to reoffend. In contrast, offenders exposed to the harsher youth facilities were 27 percent more likely to recidivate in the eight years following their custody. They were also more likely to commit violent offences, thefts, and criminal damages.

Lotti summarizes, “Keeping young offenders separate from their older peers in prison seems effective, but only in institutions with a rehabilitative focus. The need to keep society safe is a priority, and focusing on rehabilitating inmates could serve this purpose even better.”

Read the study in the Journal of Human Resources: “Tough on Young Offenders: Harmful or Helpful?” rel=”noopener” target=”_blank” by Giulia Lotti.


Giulia Lotti (@giulialotti3) is at Inter-American Development Bank (@the_IDB) and CAGE Warwick (@cage_warwick).