Offenders: age counts in the rehabilitation process

 (Image: Pixabay CC0)
(Image: Pixabay CC0)
Researchers show that it’s hard for young men who have been in prison to give up crime

The younger an offender is when released from prison, the greater the likelihood that he or she will return to prison, according to a recent study. The criminal justice system treats everyone equally from the age of 18, yet "age matters" in the process of social reintegration, show researchers from Laval University and the International Centre for Comparative Criminology.

"We knew that young adults are at greater risk of incarceration, but we hadn’t yet realized how early they enter correctional services and how almost impossible it is for them to get out for a long period of time," says Isabelle Fortin-Dufour, professor in the Department of Educational Foundations and Practices, and lead author of the study.

In Canada, more than half (58%) of those incarcerated in provincial and federal correctional facilities are men under the age of 40. The research group looked at 1558 men aged 18 to 34 who had been incarcerated for at least 6 months in Quebec, and followed them over a 5-year period. "We asked ourselves the question: how long can they survive on the outside without going back inside?" asks Professor Fortin-Dufour.

Of those who were released, only 36.8% were able to avoid re-incarceration. Some ended up back under bars just once, but one returned 12 times. "This suggests that it is difficult for young men who have been imprisoned to desist from crime," reads the scientific article published in early December in theInternational Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice.

The profile of recidivists

"Why did they do it? What have they done? Who are these young people?" asked the professor.

The results revealed that repeat offenders are often single. "The fact of not having a romantic attachment in the community means that some come back almost a year faster than those who are in a relationship," says the researcher.

People with less education, who have more difficulty holding down a job, and those who have committed a more violent offence, such as assault or sexual assault, are also at greater risk of returning to prison. Alcohol and drug problems top the list of risk factors, adds Professor Fortin-Dufour.

The researchers were also surprised to discover that young adults supervised after release returned more quickly behind bars than those under no supervision at all. "Probation and parole officers are resiliency tutors to help with reintegration, but mostly they seem to be making sure the person meets a set of conditions. With sometimes 7, 10, 15 conditions to meet, the likelihood of one being broken is high," explains the lead author.

Mature and responsible before the law?

According to her, "at 18, few are adults", even if they are held 100% legally responsible for their actions. New neuroscience studies have shown that brain development continues until the age of 25, "particularly in the areas of judgmental reasoning and impulse control".

"They’re not able to make all the decisions in an informed way, don’t know the impacts," says the professor, adding that the criminal justice system hasn’t adapted to this reality.

She also points out that crimes are 30% less serious than in the 1990s, and also less numerous. "Young people who return to prison tend to present diversified problems in terms of social and family integration, and substance abuse."

Incarceration as a last resort

Given this analysis, and the failure of prison to prevent recidivism, Isabelle Fortin-Dufour advocates incarceration as a last resort for offenders aged 18 to 25. Unless they pose a serious and imminent danger to everyone.

"When young people find someone who believes in them, they feel indebted. Those who have desisted from crime have in common a person who made a difference."

-- Isabelle Fortin-Dufour She points out that a man in a provincial or federal correctional facility costs society an average of $100,000 a year. "Let’s take that money and reinvest it in the community to put as many resources as possible."

She gives the example of counsellors who make regular visits to their offender clients, helping them fill out their paperwork and accompanying them to court. "When young people find someone who believes in them, they feel indebted. Those who have desisted from crime have in common a person who has made a difference. It all takes elbow grease, love and time," concludes Professor Fortin-Dufour.

Other signatories to the study are Stéphanie Chouinard-Thivierge, from Université Laval’s psychoeducation program, and Patrick Lussier, professor at the École de travail social et de criminologie and researcher at the Centre international de criminologie comparée.