At Northwestern faculty parties, Linda Teplin, a professor at the Feinberg School of Medicine, often asks staff if their children have ever done drugs. Frequently, the answer is yes. Yet when she follows up by asking if their children have ever been incarcerated, the answer is always no.

During a Zoom webinar Tuesday afternoon, Teplin shared her findings from the Northwestern Juvenile Project, a 20-year study on the long-term outcomes of youth after being incarcerated. The event, moderated by Northwestern philosophy professor and Prison Education Program Director Jennifer Lackey, was hosted by One Book One Northwestern.

“For poor, inner-city kids, what would have been merely adolescent limited delinquency is instead putting them on the road to destruction,” Teplin said. “Whereas for wealthier people… it becomes just something that isn’t all that important.”

According to Teplin, Black and Latinx youth comprise 15% of the population but 40% of youth in corrections. For Black youth growing up in inner cities, arrest is nearly a “normative experience,” she said, with one in four incarcerated before the age of 18. This disparity was one of Teplin’s main inspirations in beginning the Northwestern Juvenile Project.

“When you walk into the detention center in Chicago, or into any jail or prison nationwide, you are overwhelmed by the predominance of minorities,” Teplin said. “One reason we were doing our study was because of the sheer numbers of kids processed through juvenile justice.”

Between 1995 to 1998, Teplin surveyed a sample of 1,829 youth of various ages, races and genders, all incarcerated at a detention center in Chicago. Approximately 90% of the males and 85% of the females had suffered a previous trauma. Three quarters of the females and two thirds of the males had at least one psychiatric disorder.

“We knew a lot about recidivism in kids in the juvenile justice system, and we knew a lot about risk factors for becoming delinquent,” Teplin said. “We knew nothing about mental health needs and outcomes once they entered the juvenile justice system.”

While conducting her research, Teplin was surprised that only about 3% of youth and 2% of guardians declined to participate in the study. Although participants were offered payment for their time, many declined.

“A lot of our kids would say to us, ‘You don’t have to pay me the 25 dollars. It’s enough that you listen,’” Teplin said. “This is a population that has suffered terribly… It’s critical for us to tell their story.”

Over the next two decades, Teplin tracked the youths’ progress as they left the detention center. She described her findings as grim: The majority were reincarcerated within five years of their initial release, and only one in six with major mental illnesses received any treatment. Twelve years later, 90% had faced a substance use disorder. Twenty years later, 194 participants, or about 10% of the study, had died.

Given these results, Teplin advocated for changes to the country’s educational system as a means of reducing incarceration. She noted that, unlike in other countries, funding for American schools can prevent upward mobility.

“Unfortunately, in our country, the school systems are funded by the local school district, and so what that means is that our children are sentenced to a life of inequity because of their zip code,” Teplin said.

Teplin explained that her suggestions are often criticized as too expensive; however, her response is that they are necessary. Based on her interactions with lawmakers, she isn’t optimistic that her reforms will be enacted.

“I think our study has highlighted the need, but yet the powers that be in the government have not provided the proper funding,” Teplin said. “In our country, we write off people who are poor and people who are minorities. I often say that if non-Hispanic whites had the incarceration rate of African Americans, then something would happen.”

Although discouraged by how the educational and criminal justice systems failed the participants of her study, Teplin hopes that future structural changes will better protect their children.

“What we have to remember is that these kids have kids,” Teplin said. “Only if we modify the system can we save the next generation.”

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