To what should Milwaukee County attribute its declining adult and juvenile detention population? This question took shape in a research brief published a year ago by the Public Policy Forum, entitled “Milwaukee County Detainee Populations at Historic Lows: Why is it happening and what does it mean?” In that report, the Forum urged county law enforcement officials and policymakers to consider whether justice system policies that may have contributed to the decline were effective and should be sustained.
Milwaukee County’s Delinquency and Court Services Division (DCSD) asked the Forum to help in making that assessment for the array of services it offers to youth in the juvenile justice system. Success in curbing repeat delinquent behavior can have impacts into adulthood, making the juvenile justice system one critical piece in efforts to control crime and its related costs.
The most common way to assess the success of juvenile delinquency programming is to measure the extent to which participants commit additional crimes, otherwise known as recidivism. However, the best approach to defining a recidivistic event is not always clear cut, with many variations seen nationally.
The Forum’s newest research brief reviews the manner in which DCSD defines recidivism and its progress in reducing it. The following points summarize our findings:
- Using DCSD’s recidivism methodology, we find no significant changes in recidivism over five cohorts of youth aging out of the juvenile justice system between 2006 and 2010. However, categorizing youth based on the year in which they age out of the system (i.e. turn 17-years-old) has its limitations, as this approach blurs impacts of year-to-year policy and programmatic changes.
- Under our alternative methodology for measuring recidivism, we categorize youth by the year in which they are referred for their first delinquent offense and allow for a uniform follow-up period. Using this method, we find lower rates of recidivism for youth first referred in 2007 and 2008 than in the prior three years. Although two years of improved outcomes do not guarantee a new trend, this positive improvement begs further research into whether changes made in policy or programs during that time could be the cause.
- Under either measure of recidivism, we find a small group of chronic offenders accounts for a substantial percentage of repeat offenses, a trend often seen nationally. Consequently, increased attention to programs and strategies aimed at chronic offenders may be warranted.
- It may be appropriate for DCSD along with other justice system officials to carefully contemplate which recidivism definition or set of definitions would best achieve performance assessment goals in the future.
Our research brief, commissioned by DCSD, can be accessed here.