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Youth placed in adult prisons are more likely to die early, study says

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There are almost 3,000 young people in adult prisons across the nation. And new research suggests they could experience a shorter life span due to their incarceration.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association's Open Networkfound that young people incarcerated in adult facilities — instead of in youth-focused detention centers or participating in diversion programs — had a 33% higher chance of dying before the age of 39.

University of Cincinnati School of Criminal Justice Associate Professor Joseph Nedelec is a co-author on that study, which also included researchers from nonprofit institute NTI and Rutgers University. He says the research seems to show incarceration has adverse affects on physical and neurological health of young people that linger for years.

"I think probably what is happening is that youth are experiencing a very adverse environment in terms of the adult correctional facility that is really not set up for children," he says.

Ohio is like many other states in which some young people charged with crimes can be "bound over" into the adult justice system and face time in adult correctional facilities, which are usually larger and less focused on education and rehabilitation. Nedelec says introducing young people to such adverse experiences while their brains are still developing makes those experiences even more impactful than they would be for an adult.

The study's lead author is RTI quantitative criminologist Dr. Ian Silver, who earned his Ph.D. in criminal justice at UC in 2019.

"The adult prison system is not designed for the crucial development years of adolescence," Silver said in a news release about the study. "Within such a system youths may not only engage in risky behaviors, but they may directly experience risk factors associated with the likelihood of early mortality, including increased risk for violent victimization, substance use and disease."

The study, which used the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth of 1997, considered almost 9,000 randomly chosen individuals and controlled for factors like socioeconomic status, health, history of trauma, whether individuals died while incarcerated, and others.

The research also found youth who had contact with the justice system that did not involve incarceration — such as being arrested and released — still had an 18% higher risk of mortality before the age of 39.

"It appears any formal contact with the legal system as a youth increases the risk of early mortality, relative to no contact with the legal system," Nedelec says.

Nick has reported from a nuclear waste facility in the deserts of New Mexico, the White House press pool, a canoe on the Mill Creek, and even his desk one time.