Posted February 17, 2012

'Peer contagion' influences criminal recidivism among youth, study finds

Location, Location, Location...That’s been a mantra within the business community for years.

Now, new research from Temple University finds that location also plays a role in youth behavior.

Jeremy Mennis, associate professor of geography and urban studies, and Philip Harris, associate professor of criminal justice, examined how “peer contagion” — the influence on juveniles by other juveniles — within a neighborhood setting affects the probability that a youth who has committed a crime will commit another one.

Their findings, reported recently in the Journal of Adolescence, suggest that "spatial contagion" may be at work as well. In fact, the rate of recidivism among youth living nearby a juvenile's residence not only increases the likelihood that youth will re-offend, it can also cause teenage boys to "specialize" in certain types of crime.

"It turns out that contextual forces from a kid's social network create spatial patterns of crime in terms of re-offending rates as well as specializations," said Mennis.

In the past, ideas about dealing with delinquency focused on the individual kids and their particular family situations, said Mennis. "Our work is part of a growing trend across the social sciences to look at how place and context impact individual behavior," he said.

  • Jeremy Mennis
  • Phil Harris

For the study, Mennis and Harris analyzed data on 7,166 male juvenile offenders, aged 13 to 19,  who had been sent to and completed community-based programs by the Family Court of Philadelphia between 1996 and 2003.

After accounting for race, age and family history, they compared the re-offending rates of the individuals in their sample to the general juvenile re-offending rates within a one-kilometer radius from the home address of the youth.

They found that geographical location had a considerable impact on the likelihood of re-offending.  And, the pattern they identified was also offense specific, indicating the emergence of  “neighborhoods of specialization” in terms of crime type.

Teenage boys living in the vicinity of high drug crime were more likely to repeat offend in terms of drug offenses, while youth living in a neighborhood with high incidence of property crime tended to reoffend with property crimes, and youth living in a community with a high rate of violent crime or offenses against persons were more likely to re-offend in this type of crime.

According to the researchers, involvement in drug offenses was especially highly influenced by neighborhood. For every 10 percent increase in drug re-offending in close proximity to a youth’s place of residence, the likelihood that the youth will re-offend with a drug offense almost doubled.

"The patterns we found related to type of offense, particularly in terms of drug crime, suggest that more than just poverty and incivility are factors. There is a relatively organized neighborhood structure that supports involvement in this type of delinquency," said Harris.

Since 1990, not only has the number of juvenile offenders increased but many of those juveniles have been incarcerated before. Reducing recidivism is a goal shared across the juvenile justice system, and advancing our understanding of the problem is a critical step toward developing effective interventions, said Mennis.

"The hope is that these insights into the contextual forces that lead to crime can inform successful interventions," he said. "Ultimately, we want to help get kids off of the criminal path."

"In light of our findings, prevention strategies may need to be tailored to take into account spatial concentrations of crime patterns and underlying dynamics within specific neighborhoods," said Harris.

The study was funded by the National Institute of Justice.