Studies of Welfare Populations: Data Collection and Research Issues. Juvenile Justice

06/01/2002

Although social competence and adjustment is a difficult dimension to study using administrative (or survey) data, one area that can be examined profitably is the involvement with the juvenile authorities that results when children and youth break adult laws. Parental welfare program participation has long been thought to be associated with criminal and juvenile justice involvement (e.g., Levinson, 1969). There are several reasons why changes in a parent's involvement with welfare could affect the likelihood of juvenile justice involvement by their children. Communities with high welfare participation also have high crime rates. In one study (Philips et al., 1999) these two factors were temporally linked, showing that mortality (particularly intentional mortality) was far higher during the first week of the month when welfare and other public assistance checks arrive. Some youth may be involved in such crimes. Households with parents who move off welfare into self-sufficiency will have additional resources that they could use to purchase a variety of services and activities that would occupy their children and help them avoid the hazards of "hanging out." At the same time, with parents working away from the home, there may be less supervision for those youth who do not become involved in other activities. Also, if families have their benefits cut, we know they often rely on "other family members" to assist them. Although this typically means other adult relatives, it is possible that youth would feel pressured to bring new resources into the household or to, at least, find resources that would allow them to be less dependent on their families for food, clothing, and entertainment.

The most common approach to assessing criminal justice involvement is to study "arrest records." This is the device used in most studies of the transition from child welfare programs to juvenile justice involvement (e.g., Widom, 1991; English and Widom, 1999). The potential drawback of arrest records is that they reflect the combined behaviors of juveniles and criminal justice systems. This is counterbalanced by the fact that they are generally considered to be more useful than conviction records because convictions or incarcerations are determined by so many other factors--especially for less violent crimes. Still, convictions or incarcerations can be used if the theoretical relationship between welfare participation and crime suggests there would be higher rates of major crimes. Incarcerations in state training programs have been shown to be sensitive enough to pick up differences between groups that did and did not obtain ongoing child welfare services following a child abuse investigation (Jonson-Reid and Barth, 2000).

Juvenile justice data also can be obtained from a variety of settings, depending on the geographic locus of the study. At the local level, youth often are remanded to juvenile detention and county camps and ranches. At the state level, they may attend a training school or youth authority program. In more populous counties, they generally have greater capacity to hold more youth who commit more serious offenses at the local level, whereas more rural areas may use the statewide facilities to a greater extent. Statewide facilities often have their own databases, which include substantial additional information collected about the child at intake. This makes such information particularly useful in trying to explain exit patterns and the path of services once in the training program.

Some juveniles are tried as adults and others may have their records sealed for a variety of offenses. Still, these remain the exception and they are unlikely to bias study results or affect interjurisdictional comparisons as long as reasonable sample sizes are maintained.

Although these authors were unable to identify any studies that have directly tested the relationship between parents' welfare participation and children's juvenile justice involvement, one important study matched juvenile justice data with survey data from the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) experiment. In the MTO, a total of 614 families living in high-poverty Baltimore neighborhoods were assigned into three different "treatment groups": experimental group families received housing subsidies, counseling, and search assistance to move to private-market housing in low-poverty census tracts (poverty rates under 10 percent); Section 8-only group families received private-market housing subsidies with no constraints on relocation choices; and a control group received no special assistance under the MTO. The impact of this "treatment" on juvenile arrests was then assessed (Ludwig et al., 1999). (The authors also tested models that used convictions instead of arrests and found similar results.)

The study also cast light on the utility of a variety of indicators of juvenile justice involvement, finding that false arrests are likely to be crime specific and disproportionately involve charges such as disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and assaulting a police officer. Second, they replicated their analysis using convictions instead of arrests, assuming that these show less variation across neighborhoods in false convictions than arrests because juvenile prosecutions are handled at the county level and arrests are made by local police.

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