There has been a longstanding debate over the effectiveness of correctional institutions.  Some argue that incarceration deters offenders while others argue that the experience of being incarcerated causes individuals to continue in their life of crime.  Resolving this debate is of particular importance for young individuals when there is a national push for the increased treatment of youth as adults.  Using NLSY panel data, this study focuses on how the criminal offending of a sample of incarcerated youth changes over time in relation to incarceration while including a control group of youth who are not incarcerated but are similar in demographics.  Close attention is paid to overcome past problems with validity.  The findings suggest that incarceration does little to stop criminal paths or future contacts with the criminal justice system, but perhaps may even have harmful effects on youth, particularly drug sellers, over the short term.  


There is no debate that incarceration in the United States has rapidly increased over the last twenty years.  There is a debate, however, about the impact of incarceration on the future offending of punished individuals.  Labeling theory suggests that sanctions negatively label offenders which amplify their criminal activity afterwards; this increase in behavior is often called deviance amplification.  Instead of reducing criminal activity, sanctioning results in negative reactions from others and facilitates the offender in constructing a deviant self image thereby causing him to continue or increase his participation in crime (Farrington 1977).  Sanctioning, particularly incarceration, acts as a severe reaction from society which aids an individual in accepting a deviant social status (Lemert 1951).  Alternatively, specific deterrence theorists believe that incarceration deters an offender from returning to the same level of crime after his release.  Specific deterrence occurs when individuals who have suffered a punishment for a type of crime are deterred from future offending (Gibbs 1975: 34).  These theorists expect that sanctioning deters offenders from committing crime in the future by imposing more costs than benefits on rational offenders.   

This debate is particularly salient for youth and young adults who are becoming involved with the criminal justice system for the first time.  Labeling someone as deviant may have a greater effect on younger offenders and may not even apply to offenders with previous contacts with the system (Murray and Cox 1979).  Similarly, Farrington, Osborn, and West conclude that labeling effects may wear off after a number of years, whether or not further convictions occur (1978: 283).  The deterrent impact of incarceration may differ between younger and older offenders as well.  For example, younger offenders may feel they have less to lose by committing a crime and therefore are less likely to be deterred by sanctions.  Furthermore, some research suggests that incarceration has no direct effect on future criminal behavior, but instead, incarceration has an indirect influence on criminal behavior through its effect on future employment (Sampson and Laub 1993).  Under these theories, the recent get tough policy of increased incarceration for youth and young adults (P. Smith et al. 2002) could lead to either increased or decreased criminal behavior or it could have no effect on criminal behavior at all.  It is estimated that over one hundred thousand juveniles are incarcerated in the U.S. (Austin et al. 2001) a substantial amount of lives, which could be positively or negatively affected by incarceration policies.  Resolving this question empirically is therefore interesting for both policy and theoretical reasons.  This study will investigate whether incarceration deters young offenders from crime, amplifies their behavior, or fails to change their involvement in delinquency.