Juvenile Recidivism Reduction: A Phenomenological Investigation of Successful Juvenile Reintegration Executive Summary


The United States criminal justice correctional system burdens taxpayers at a rate of about 52 billion dollars a year. (Pew Center 2008; Pew Center 2011) It has been documented that recidivism contributes significantly to the high costs of incarceration, and up to 55 percent of juveniles contribute to the overall recidivism rate. (Geis 2003; Mears and Travis 2004; Snyder and Sickmund 2006; Stoodley 2010) Of that $52 billion, taxpayers spend more than seven billion dollars on juvenile recidivists. (McCollister, French, and Fang 2010) As these costs rise amongst juveniles, the need to decrease criminal juvenile re-offending becomes imperative. The purpose of this study was to begin to understand and examine the other 45 percent of juvenile offenders that go on to be successful in an effort to assist in reducing juvenile recidivism.

Juvenile Recidivism Reduction: A Phenomenological Investigation of Successful Juvenile Reintegration examined successful juvenile reintegration using Travis Hirschi’s bonding theory elements which posits that youth who encompass the elements of a strong bond are less likely to commit crime and become delinquent. (Bradford 2015; Hirschi 1969) Attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief systems are Hirschi’s elements that were used to develop six interview questions to collect data. In addition, Amedeo Giorgi’s descriptive phenomenological method was used to analyze study results.

Phenomenological Method

Philosophically, phenomenology seeks to understand an experience through the consciousness of individuals having that experience. (Giorgi 2009) In this study, the researcher attempted to understand juvenile reentry from a phenomenological perspective because understanding successful juvenile reintegration could help fill gaps that exist in what is known about juvenile recidivism and reintegration. Utilizing Amedeo Giorgi’s philosophical approach in phenomenological research, there was an aim to understand deeper meanings of the issues faced by ex-juvenile offenders and objectively detail the feedback provided by research participants as co-researchers. (De Castro 2003; Giorgi 1997, 2009)

Phenomenology has been previously used by the feminist movement to draw attention to some of the travailing and underlying issues of subgroups in society. (Crotty 1998) Phenomenology has also been used to assist researchers in the psychological and human service fields, giving voice to the experiences of those that traditionally have been taken for granted as understood. (Giorgi 2009) Not all youth and adults have experienced incarceration or the multiple risk factors attributed as causes or correlations to delinquency. So it was important to explore success through the lenses of those that have overcome stigmatization and offenses to society to further explore how to prevent juvenile repeat offending. Behavioral scientists should not consider conducting research on a population without trying to understand the meaning that is attached to those who are having the very experience being explored—which, for the purposes of this study, was the ex-juvenile offender. (Crotty 1998; De Castro 2003; Giorgi 1997, 2009).

Study Findings

The research data in this study collected through semistructured interviews with 14 successfully reintegrated juvenile ex-offenders who were previously incarcerated at the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice (SCDJJ). There was one research question and two corollary research questions directing the study: (a) How do juvenile parolees experience and describe successful reintegration? (b) How do juvenile offenders define successful reintegration? (c) Do juvenile offenders describe any of Hirschi’s Bonding Theory elements as reasons for their success? Utilizing the phenomenological data analysis method, five primary themes were discovered that revealed deeper meanings of lived experiences of the ex-juvenile research participants:

  1. Positive and Supportive Relationships
  2. Self-Awareness and Determination
  3. Maturation
  4. Avoidance of Negative Influences and Situations
  5. Education and Employment

These themes provided insight into how the participants experienced and described their juvenile reintegration success and also identified a need to further explore them to gain a better understanding of how juvenile parolees experience successful juvenile reintegration. Conducting this study was a deliberate attempt to obtain a unique perspective of juvenile reintegration focusing on success in the hope of enhancing policy and service provision to reduce high recidivism rates.

Conclusion and Law Enforcement Implications

Overall, this study was an initial exploration of utilizing the lived experiences of successfully reintegrated juvenile ex-offenders as guides to enhancing juvenile justice reintegration programming and reducing overall recidivism that costs the tax payers billions of dollars. (Justice Policy Institute 2014; Pew Center 2011) Conducting more research utilizing the themes revealed in this study is the very next step in determining how to support policy and eventual practice that balances community safety with rehabilitation. The commitment to supporting this unique research focusing on success could prove to be the investment needed to drive down the high costs associated with youth confinement and recidivism.

With that stated, law enforcement plays a critical role in the criminal justice system and often is the system’s primary face. Law enforcement is our first line of defense in stopping criminal behavior and preventing victimization. (Cid 2011) Through successful integration of school resource officers in our schools, youth-friendly police officers, and active participation in comprehensive community service provision, law enforcement can be an active contributor to the deterrence and rehabilitation of many of the juvenile offenders across the country. (IACP 2014)

The results of this study can assist law enforcement’s discussion on how their communities can be better prepared to assist with returning ex-juvenile offenders. Armed with the themes resulting from this study, law enforcement can advocate for the needs that are inevitably attached to the youth that will return to their communities. Changing the course of conversation from the negative contributions that our youth are making in society to the more positive and successful turnaround of our youth should provide some hope to those who fear that youthful offenders cannot change. It is the researcher’s hope that this study will contribute to conversations amongst law enforcement and other practitioners about how we can use the voice of the successful ex-juvenile offender to reduce repetitive contact of other juveniles within the criminal justice system. We are ready to have that conversation; are you?

For more information on this dissertation study, please contact TeNeane P. Bradford, PhD, TeNeane.Bradford@usdoj.gov.

TeNeane P. Bradford
Staff Writer
The COPS Office

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