Among the greatest challenges the Juvenile Justice System faces is a chronically high rate of recidivism among juvenile offenders. Recent studies have estimated that half of incarcerated youth will go on to commit new crimes after their release from detention. In spite of the many programs that have been designed to support desistance from criminal activity, many of these young offenders will never successfully develop into non-offending adults. The present study investigates why teenage offenders continue to recidivate despite their efforts to 'go straight'. To address this question, it follows 30 young men in Chicago and Boston who have broken the law and have subsequently expressed an intention to change their behavior. In both cities, participants are interviewed over the course of a year. Questions are designed to elicit information on the motivations underlying personal behavioral choices and how participants perceive their surroundings. The goal is to gain insight into the interaction between individual behavior and the opportunities offered by the structured social environment, recognizing how the context within which behavioral reform is attempted variously facilitates or inhibits new actions. It is argued that a positive and secure concept of identity may protect young men from recidivating. Hence, the aim of this research is to observe the emergence of such positive identity concepts or to recognize the forces that have inhibited them when they fail to develop.

This research demonstrates that young men are exposed to a variety of influences that interact in dynamic ways in the course of attempting to reform their behavior. It aims to aid in the development of juvenile justice programs that are more effective for taking into account the context within which young offenders struggle to change the courses of their lives.

Project Report

Intellectual Merit This project follows 23 young men in Boston and Chicago as they find their way through the juvenile justice systems in both cities. The data I have collected is unique in its ability to document desistance processes as they are in the making. Based on the observations and interviews I conducted over the course of three years, this study emphasizes the importance of agency in the desistance process. Though agency has been identified as a key aspect of successful desistance (Sampson and Laub 2005; Giordano et al 2002), the type of agency necessary to maintain a life without crime has so far not been further specified. My data collection reveals that being able to exercise creative agency in terms of a new, nondeviant self is a necessary condition for maintaining a life beyond the streets. The young men who desisted successfully were able to actively participate in the creation of their future rather than only learning how to control themselves in the face of temptations (Hirschi and Gottfredson 1990). Teenagers who moved away from crime therefore did more than just participating in rehabilitative programs the juvenile justice system imposed upon them. Fostered by idiosyncratic circumstances, they were able to make choices about who they wanted to be become and successfully developed a nondeviant identity beyond the limiting structures of the juvenile justice system. Broader Impact By asking what type of agency the juvenile justice systems in Boston and Chicago enable, this study challenges us to reconsider the goals of juvenile justice. Taking agency seriously encourages us to recalibrate juvenile justice policies so that they can live up to their rehabilitative intentions. As my data show, juvenile justice institutions hover between being a social service provider and executing punishment. Negotiating the tension between trying to help struggling teenagers and punishing them for their transgressions, fundamentally shapes the developmental trajectories of teenagers who are trying to desist from crime. In practical terms, this dissertation thus raises the question of what kind of future we want make possible for young minority men that have come in conflict with the law. Are we satisfied with achieving momentary nondeviance, or do we want to foster the self-transformative powers of teenagers? Do we want to conceptualize rehabilitation decisively as a social policy? Or do we continue to segregate and punish youths who have also been identified as being in need of social services? And finally, is it possible to imagine a juvenile justice system that opens up opportunities for minority teenagers and allows them to build an identity of their own making?

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Marjorie Zatz
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University of Chicago
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