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Research shows contact with police amplifies deviant behaviour in youth

January 14, 2019
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By Christine Palka

Does receiving the label of deviant increase a youth’s antisocial behaviour? Criminologist Stephanie Wiley’s research on middle and high school age adolescents confirms that youth who interact with the criminal justice system are more likely to continue with deviant behaviour.

“My research shows that punishment in whatever form leads to additional offending. Youth who feel perceived as deviant by others start to perceive themselves as deviant. Prior antisocial behaviour is then reinforced as youth increasingly spend time with deviant groups as a result of punishment,” says Wiley, assistant professor in the School of Criminology.

Wiley considers how youth’s relationship between their offending behaviour, behaviour in school, associations with deviant peers, and their attitudes towards the justice system increase or decrease deviant behaviour. She examines interactions with the police department, and the impact of school sanctions like suspension, expulsion and detention on youth’s deviant behaviour. Her findings show that overall forms of police contact and school sanctions cause deviance amplification.

“We primarily see deviance amplification happening through increased involvement with deviant peers and through weaker attachment to conventional institutions and people. That’s why it’s important to consider all factors before applying punishment because there is a lasting reciprocal relationship,” says Wiley.

“For example, if a youth is stopped or arrested and his or her pro social, law abiding friends find out then that youth may be excluded from that peer group. As consequence, the youth may join a delinquent peer group, which could then reinforce a deviant identity.”

Wiley also finds that youth’s deviance amplification is affected by race, ethnicity, sex and age. Findings suggest that all youth are negatively affected by police contact or school sanctions, yet by varying degrees. Police contact for a minority youth may be more detrimental if the contact is concentrated in a disadvantaged area; the area may lack a strong support system, particularly as it relates to education.

Findings also suggest that negative implications of police contact may be mitigated by the quality of interaction with police. Wiley’s research gives weight to a growing notion that practitioners should think of alternatives to traditional justice system involvement.

“The goal is to try to minimize the harms to youth when they become involved in the justice system. We know we can’t ignore youth who are being delinquent or deviant. However, we do know that youth with justice system contact are more delinquent later on. This research prompts practitioners to take a step back and assess the situation as a whole before they decide to take youth into the police station,” says Wiley.

Wiley conducted her research on adolescents in the United States. She plans to explore the inequalities and injustices related to justice system involvement on Canadian youth, with consideration towards Indigenous youth.

Dr. Stephanie Wiley joined SFU’s School of Criminology in September 2017. She holds a PhD from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Her research focuses include juvenile delinquency, quantitative methods, developmental criminology, consequences of police contact and sanctions, racial and socioeconomic inequality, and police-community relations.

Dr. Wiley primarily teaches Sociological Explanations of Criminal and Deviant Behaviour (CRIM 104), Law, Youth and Young Offenders (CRIM 210), Qualitative Research Methods in Criminology (CRIM 321) and Criminological Theory II (CRIM 801).