Criminal justice system impact on adolescents and young adults

February 26, 2019

By Christine Palka

Assistant Professor Zachary Rowan studies the role of deviant peer influence and how interaction with the criminal justice system influences youth. Based on data from the Crossroads Study, his research finds that youth’s friendship networks become criminalized or more criminalized as a result of formal processing within the juvenile justice system. This supports prior criminological research that shows criminal justice contact amplifies youth’s deviant behavior through changes in peer networks. 

“Formally processing youth, meaning that they go before a judge, causes them to be labelled as criminal. The stigma from this label potentially changes many aspects of their lives. Significantly, I find that youth gain more antisocial friends, who are more likely to engage in criminal behaviour, or they are more likely to keep preexisting antisocial friends rather than adding any friends of a positive influence,” says Rowan.

In addition, Rowan and Elizabeth Cauffman, professor at the University of California, Irvine are collaborating with practitioners and policy makers to develop a Young Adult Court in Orange County, California and investigate the impact of a felony conviction (similar to an indictable offence in Canada) on young adults. Young adults that successfully complete the terms of this new court will have their felony conviction dismissed. This information will help make recommendations for mitigating the impact of the criminal justice system on youth’s futures.

“Research tell us that adolescent brains don’t finish developing until roughly the age of 25. Yet, the criminal justice system treats 18 to 25 year olds as adults so they are sanctioned the same way that someone who is fully matured. By doing so, these young adults are denied access to a host of significant support and services that follow a felony conviction.”

In California alone, individuals who receive a felony conviction receive over 700 collateral consequences when they try to navigate their lives post-conviction. A young adult court provides participants with a wide-range of services and support not provided within the traditional court system. Rowan wants to know if this reduces subsequent reoffending, access to housing, and its impact on participants’ views of the criminal justice system.

“We hypothesize that changing sentencing law for young adults who engage in certain types of crimes will mean they aren’t penalized by this felony conviction for the remainder of their lives. We hope that if we can change sentencing laws for some people, they won’t receive a felony conviction, and instead might get diverted to alternative sanctioning or referred to services. Ideally, these services would help stabilize their young adult lives by providing access to housing, jobs, etc.”

This is the first young adult court in the United States to undergo a randomized controlled trial and should provide evidence on the effectiveness of this type of criminal justice intervention. The study has received three years of funding from the United States National Institute of Justice, with Rowan providing technical assistance and data analysis as part of the American research team. Rowan has also received an SFU/SSHRC Small Research Grant to hire an SFU graduate student to help with data analysis on this project. 

Dr. Zachary Rowan joined SFU’s School of Criminology in September 2017. He holds a PhD from the University of Maryland. His research focuses include peer influence, co-offending, group behaviour, life-course and developmental criminology, intervention evaluation.

Dr. Rowan primarily teaches Introduction to Criminology (CRIM 101), Research Methods in Criminology (CRIM 220), and Current Issues in Criminology and Criminal Justice – Groups and Crime (CRIM 417). He is interested in supervision for research topics on the role of peers in explaining criminal, delinquent or antisocial behaviour, or group behaviour generally.