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How Behavioral Research Can Produce Better Outcomes for Kids and Adults in the Justice System

Last week, the Justice Center held another graduation and swearing in ceremony for our newest Youth Court members.  Since 1995, the Red Hook Community Justice Center has had a Youth Court program. Indeed, the program was operational even before the building which now houses the Justice Center and the court was operational. It is one of the Justice Center's most successful programs and has on average 90% compliance rate for respondents. Youth Court does not use the threat of jail, harsh sanctions, or public shaming. Youth are treated respectfully and encouraged by their peers to do better for themselves and their communities - and for the most part, youth comply and do not reoffend. Youth Court is a vastly less expensive and more effective than a lot of other youth juvenile justice diversion and prevention programs.

A growing body of research is shedding light into why programs like Youth Court are so successful. A new book by Princeton Professor Eldar Shafir, "The Behavioral Foundations of Public Policy" uses the study of behavioral research and demonstrates how it should be used to impact public policy - including strong implications for criminal justice policy as well. As David Brooks notes in a recent New York Times Op-Ed "Beware Stubby Glasses", he highlights how understanding human behavior and what actually motivates humans (consciously or subconsciously) can have large impacts on our decisions. Behavioral research demonstrates that much of what motivates human behavior is actually counter-intuitive to what we think. Unfortunately much of public policy that is intended to get us humans to behave better actually has the opposite outcome. For example, someone who is about to commit a crime does not  take into account how long the prison sentence may be if convicted, since criminals, like everyone else don't often take into account long-term consequences into most decision making. Therefore, the use of a long-term prison sentence is not a deterrent to crime as if often argued by policy makers (and at great expense to tax payers). Brooks also uses the example of the low voter turn out in the US. If you want to get more people to vote, don't tell them so few people vote, tell them everyone else is voting and they should too. At the Justice Center, our Youth Court calls this tactic positive peer pressure. Behavioral research can provide even greater impact to how we deal with youth, since we know that children, teens and young adults do not have the same decision-making capacity as adults do due to brain development, lack of life experiences, and general immaturity. As more behavioral science research comes out, it will hopefully also inform our public policy decisions and produce better outcomes.

Jessica Colon
Deputy Project Director


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