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What Can Studies on Entrepreneurs Teach us about Juvenile Justice?

| August 15, 2013

New studies coming from the National Bureau of Economic Research* and the Journal of Vocational Behavior* contribute to the growing body of literature concerning the “wayward behavior” of successful entrepreneurs in their youth. These articles highlight how successful entrepreneurs (measured as “incorporated self-employed” in the NBER working paper) were more likely to engage in aggressive, illicit, and risk-taking behavior in their youth. This, coupled with high performance on standardized tests (and other individual-level factors), produce a higher likelihood that the person will become an entrepreneur and have a more-successful career thereafter. Both of these studies have enjoyed mainstream press coverage in outlets like Popular Science and the Washington Post.

This body of research lends credence to theories of adolescent deviance long-held in life course criminology. Whereas serious and violent juvenile offenses are rare, minor incidents of juvenile delinquency are more normal. Whether it is a teenager shoplifting an item that connotes a higher social status or engaging in experimental drug or alcohol abuse, many juveniles have engaged in low-level, inconsistent, illegal behavior. Such activity often goes undetected, but those unfortunate enough to be caught are likely precluded from pro-social, positive development opportunities even if their criminal record will eventually be expunged. Those who offend after the age of majority may have no recourse in removing a minor offense from their public records.

In sum, these recent findings underscore the need for sensible criminal justice reform; specifically the elimination of statutes that over-criminalize nonviolent offenses without direct harm to an identified victim. Even a limited criminal record may bar an individual from the business activity necessary to get their fledgling enterprise started. It is also incredibly unlikely that these low-risk individuals would benefit from incarceration, nor would society in general benefit given the direct costs of confinement and the indirect costs of their absence in the economy. Further, entrepreneurial individuals are more likely to add value to society through innovation and experimentation. To prevent them from doing so because of youthful deviance unduly punishes not only the individual, but the public as well. Those who do not do not go on to found the next large tech venture or novel retail experience still represent a substantial net benefit when left in productive society.

*Both articles require a subscription to view.

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DEREK M. COHEN is Deputy Director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Right on Crime campaign. Cohen graduated with a B.S. in Criminal Justice from Bowling Green State University and an M.S. in Criminal Justice from the University of Cincinnati, where he is currently completing his Ph.D. dissertation on the long-term costs and outcomes associated with correctional programming.  His academic work can be found in Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management and the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Theoretical Criminology and The Oxford Handbook on Police and Policing, and has scholarly articles currently under review.  He has presented several papers to the American Society of Criminology, the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, and the American Evaluation Association on the implementation and outcomes of various criminal justice policy issues. Prior to joining the Foundation, Cohen was a research associate with University of Cincinnati’s Institute of Crime Science.  He also taught classes in statistics, research methods, criminal procedure, and corrections.

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