Arrested in Adolescence: Youth Perceptions of Relationships, School Experiences, and Justice System Involvement
Abena Subira Mackall

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship

Award Year



Harvard University

Primary Discipline

Annually, nearly 1.5 million youth under age 18 are arrested nationwide. Regardless of the outcome of their arrests, this formal contact with the juvenile/criminal justice systems (J/CJS) is a critical developmental turning point, with substantial implications along the life course. Arrests during adolescence are associated with social isolation, low educational attainment, and continued system-involvement. However, the underlying mechanisms through which contact with the police and courts results in these undesirable outcomes for youth is unclear. Do young people internalize the idea that they are ‘delinquent,’ which prompts additional offending? Or, do the societal responses to J/CJS involvement, such as exclusion from schools and similar institutions, lead to continued crime-involvement? This dissertation expands our understanding of adolescent arrest using data from three rounds of phenomenological interviews with youth whose first arrest occurred prior to their 18th birthday and contextual interviews with stakeholders who have either personal or professional experiences with youth who have been arrested. Preliminary findings reveal two related processes prompt additional crime involvement among adolescents. First, rather than evidence that young people have internalized the delinquent label, interviews indicate that widespread and narratives of personal responsibility for one’s own physical and material well-being that were linked to delinquent offending. Second, adversarial school experiences in early childhood coupled with a typical adolescent desire to individuate from parents, often culminated in a deeper attachment to small networks of crime involved peers. As a result, youths’ future aspirations were often modest and reflected a nuanced understanding of the difficulty of maintaining a crime-free lifestyle.
About Abena Subira Mackall
Abena Subira Mackall is a doctoral candidate concentrating in Culture, Communities, and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Abena uses in-depth interviewing to clarify the mechanisms underlying associations between poverty, crime, and low educational attainment. In doing so, her research provides insights into practices and policies that will enable families, communities, and public institutions to more effectively support crime-involved individuals.Abena is a former special education teacher and ELA instructional coach. She has also worked as a health instructor and academic mentor in prisons. While at Harvard, Abena has been an Inequality & Criminal Justice Doctoral Fellow in the Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality & Social Policy, a Spencer Foundation Early Career Scholar in New Civics, and a Julius B. Richmond Fellow at the Center on the Developing Child. She is a former Co-Chair of the Harvard Educational Review and holds an EdM from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, a MSc in Race, Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Studies from the London School of Economics, a MSEd in Special Education from Hunter College, and an AB in Politics from Princeton University.

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