"How I Turned Out": Juvenile Probationers’ Experiences Getting Into, Out of, and Overwhelmed by Justice Involvement

Kimberly S. Meyer

Major Professor: Danielle S. Rudes, PhD, Department of Criminology, Law and Society

Committee Members: David B. Wilson, Allison Redlich, Aaron Kupchik (University of Delaware)

Enterprise Hall, #318
April 13, 2018, 11:00 AM to 01:00 PM


Criminologists continue to seek explanations for why some people engage in criminal activity over the course of their lives, despite inquiring about this for centuries. The life-course perspective suggests criminal involvement begins during adolescence due to a combination of human developmental factors, interactions with one’s environment, and individuals’ choices about whether or not to engage in criminal activity (Sampson & Laub, 2005). On the other end of one’s criminal career, desistance, Sampson and Laub (2005) suggest the value of turning points (such as getting married or joining the military) that cause people to turn away from criminal activity because of a disconnect between their past lives and visions of the future (Sampson & Laub, 2005). This dissertation extends the idea of turning points to include the possibility that specific life events could explain entry into criminal activity as well as exit from the criminal lifestyle.

Using a multi-method approach, this study investigates the existence of turning points that bring juveniles into the justice system and considers how the system might create additional turning points that result in desistance from crime. In-depth interviews following a life story interview protocol (see McAdams, 2008; Nelson, 2010) shed light on life events and circumstances to which juveniles attribute their behavior, such as peer groups, family compositions, and traumatic experiences. During interviews, individual juveniles explore the turning points they perceive as bringing them into or keeping them out of contact with the justice system and discuss their perceptions of the justice system. To examine the relationship between justice system interventions (specifically, disposition of probation violations) on the presence and timing of future charges, this study uses survival analysis of juvenile probation cases in a county-level agency. Using a combination of survival analysis and in-depth interviews, this research reveals new turning points both into and away from criminal activity and provides insight into ways to leverage turning points to prevent justice involvement. Implications provide opportunities for schools, families, and justice agencies to target programming toward youth approaching would-be turning points into the system and create turning points to help youth transition back out of the system.