Foster Youth Would Benefit from Emphasis on Prevention and Treatment to Reduce Justice System Involvement

Given the documented link between child maltreatment and later delinquency, it is not surprising that transition-age foster youth face higher rates of contact with the justice system. Several studies have found that transition-age foster youth are more likely than their nonfoster peers to engage in delinquent behaviors and become involved with the justice system, and additional studies report substantial demographic disparities in system involvement. National trends in the general population show both a tendency of desistance during early adulthood and an overall decrease in juvenile arrests and incarceration. However, we have limited understanding of how these outcomes may be changing for young people in foster care in California.

What We Did

This memo analyzes longitudinal data collected from the first three interview waves of the California Youth Transitions to Adulthood Study (CalYOUTH). Baseline interviews for the study were completed in 2013 with 727 youths. Of the 727 youths who completed the baseline survey, 611 completed the second survey in 2015 and 616 completed the third survey in 2017. On average, participants were 17 years old during the first survey, 19 years old during the second survey, and 21 years old during the third survey.

This memo first examines CalYOUTH participants’ justice system involvement within two timeframes: (1) involvement before their age-17 interview and (2) involvement between their age-17 and age-21 interviews. Next, we report findings on the types of crimes that youth had been arrested for or convicted of between the age-17 and age-21 interviews. Finally, we examine differences in rates of justice system involvement by gender and race/ethnicity.

What We Found

Overall, about 44% of youth had any of the three types of justice system involvement prior to their age-17 interview, with arrests being the most common. Regarding new criminal justice system involvement, about a quarter of youth had any justice system involvement between their age-17 interviews and age-21 interviews. In examining types of offenses for which youths were arrested or convicted, our findings suggest that young people transitioning to adulthood from care are more likely to commit drug crimes and property crimes than to commit violent crimes.

This study also finds some subgroup differences in justice system involvement based on youth demographic characteristics. Males reported higher rates of justice system involvement than females across ages, but relatively few racial or ethnic differences emerged in this study. The only racial differences that reached statistical significance were in system-involvement outcomes when youth were older, with black youth experiencing higher rates of arrests and overall justice system involvement than youth in other racial groups.

What It Means

Our findings align with previous research that documents the high rates of justice system involvement among young people in foster care. However, consistent with earlier research on the overall population of young adults, most of the crimes the young people in our study reported committing were misdemeanors, not felonies. In recognition of the fact that most youth offenses are not serious felonies, recent justice reform policy in California included state efforts to prioritize rehabilitation and community-based programs for young people over formal processing and incarceration. Our findings support the call for realignment of resources to emphasize prevention, treatment, and supervision.

Recommended citation
Park, K., Courtney, M. E., Okpych, N. J., & Nadon, M. L. (2020). Memo from CalYOUTH: Trends in justice involvement from ages 17 to 21. Chicago, IL: Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.
Criminal Justice Involvement