UTSA professors J. Mitchell Miller, Michael Karcher and Holly Ventura-Miller received a $280,000 research grant from the US Department of Justice to work in conjunction with Youth Advocate Programs (YAP). Their research will seek to determine if youth advocacy is an effective way to treat juvenile delinquency when compared to the current model of pairing at-risk youth with volunteer mentors. While a mentor would spend an hour with the youth every week for a year, “there’s a much higher frequency of contact” with a youth advocate,” Miller said.
In a state such as Texas—which is known for its high prison population and enforcement of the death penalty—it is not hard to imagine jails full of hardened criminals. Controversy surrounding the American criminal justice system is common considering that the U.S. imprisons more people than any other country and at a higher rate. Juvenile delinquents are often not mentioned when discussions of the criminal justice system arise; although, they are the most at-risk to someday be numbered among the thousands of convicted felons in Texas.
Studies have shown that minors who commit a crime are more likely to be arrested as adults, and it is not uncommon for that same minor to be arrested more than once before turning 18. Recidivism—the act of offenders relapsing into criminal behavior—poses a large strain on the criminal justice system, and it is estimated that at least half of juvenile delinquents in the US will be rearrested within one year of being released.
While a youth advocate spends only six months with the juvenile, compared to a year the volunteer mentor contributes, the quality of time spent is more valuable, and the youth advocate is in contact more often. Miller notes that “it’s also much more intense [the support received]…they’ll go with the youth to court to advocate and represent them.” Additionally, the youth advocates must first go through a thorough background check and extensive training with Youth Advocacy Programs.
The study itself is built on a theory in criminology known as Social Support Theory, which, according to Miller, suggests that “if at-risk youth can receive a greater degree of social support, then this will increase their chances for preventing their involvement with delinquency.”
However, there is little research into this topic as it relates to juvenile delinquents, a fact that the study aims to change. As Miller notes, the study is “going to give us greater information as to the extent to which social support matters.”
With operations in 16 states in addition to its international work, YAP targets the most at-risk youth, the ones who are on the verge of being institutionalized. Working with YAP in Ft. Worth, Las Vegas, Toledo, Atlantic City and Mobile, the study hopes to determine how effective youth advocacy is in all parts of the country with juveniles from a variety of backgrounds.
“YAP is intent on “delinquency prevention towards the deinstitutionalization of the youth, that is to keep youth out of confinement and incarceration settings,” Miller said.
Recent data show that three-fourths of Texan juvenile delinquents relapse into illegal activity, and the findings of this study could have substantial impacts. Determining how effective a youth advocate is compared to a traditional mentor has the potential to influence juvenile treatment that will not be limited to San Antonio or to Texas. Although the state could certainly benefit from a lower recidivism rate, the biggest impact would be on the youths themselves.
While studies look to find patterns in approaching juvenile rehabilitation, there is no way to measure the benefits for a former delinquent whose life no longer includes run-ins with the law.