Harvard Mental Health Letter

Study of Violent Boys, May 1995

By Lewis, Yeager, and Lovely, et. al.

A long-term study of delinquent teenage boys suggests that they are better off even in the most inadequate family home than in a prison or reform school. The 97 boys participating in the study had been residents of a correctional school during a period in the late 1970s, when their average age was 15. Researchers examined their records nine years later, using information from police, prisons, psychiatric hospitals, schools, and marriage, birth and death certificates. Seventy-four of the men, or, in some cases, their relatives, were also interviewed (six had died, twelve could not be found, and five refused to participate). At the time of the follow-up 69 (73%) of the men had committed violent crimes. A man was more likely to have a serious criminal record if he had been severely abused physically as a child or if, as an adolescent, he had had certain neurological and psychiatric symptoms, including psychotic episodes and seizures.

After leaving the correctional school, 39% of the boys had returned home (many of them to violent and abusive households), 21% had been placed in group homes, and 17% had been sent to a disciplinary residential setting. Eleven percent went to special therapeutic schools, 6% to psychiatric hospitals, and 5% to adult prisons.

Twenty-two of the men had high school diplomas, and they had committed fewer crimes than the others. Most of the men worked sporadically at unskilled jobs; the longer they held their jobs, the fewer crimes they had committed. Of the 63 who were willing to talk about their relationships with women, 31 (49%) admitted that they had sometimes been violent. Among those who denied it, eight had criminal records for sexual assault. At least 35 of the men knew they were fathers, but fewer than half of them had ever lived with their children.

A man was more likely to have received a high school diploma, held a steady job, and maintained a non-violent relationship with a woman if he had been neurologically intact and relatively healthy psychiatrically nine years before. Six men had been given anticonvulsant drugs, and 24 had had some treatment for alcohol and drug abuse. Except for those sent to psychiatric hospitals, none had received any other psychiatric treatment.

The men originally placed in the most restrictive settings - prisons, group homes, and the disciplinary residence - had committed more violent crimes, even after allowance for the fact that they were already more violent. Adult prisons were the worst places to go; family homes, even in abusive families, were the best. In fact, apart from early violent behavior and neurological and psychiatric vulnerability, being sent directly home from the juvenile prison was the only variable associated with a good outcome - again, allowing for the fact that these boys were usually less violent to begin with.

According to the authors, even in the worst of homes there was usually someone who cared for the boy and whom he did not want to disappoint. At home the boys were exposed more to people who were not criminals, and, since they had to take responsibility for their lives instead of simply following prison rules, they internalized some standards and developed some self-control. Boys who went to prison, the authors say, came out angry, ignorant, and unprepared for life on the outside.

Dorothy Otnow Lewis, Catherine A. Yeager Richard Lovely, et al. A clinical follow-up of delinquent males: ignored vulnerabilities, unmet needs, and the perpetuation of violence. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 33:4:518-528 (May 1994).

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