The study of the recidivism rates among juvenile offenders can best be carried out through qualitative research methods. This is because the study seeks to find out the reasons why juvenile delinquents re-offend, how their prison experiences affect their rates of recidivism, the problems currently facing juvenile prison programs and how such programs could be improved. Looking at these research questions, it is clear that the researcher wants to have a deeper understanding of juvenile recidivism as well as the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of juvenile prison programs. This objective can only be achieved through qualitative research methods. Qualitative research methods are concerned with the collection and analysis of subjective and descriptive data which are used by the researcher to have a better insight into the problem under investigation. This is different from quantitative research methods whose aim is to collect and analyze numerical data for the sake of making generalizations about the population. This section deals with the qualitative research design that will be used to conduct the study as well as the data collection and analysis techniques.
This study will use a qualitative phenomenological study which entails the use of a sample that is well experienced with the problem under investigation (Leedy and Ormrod, 2005). In this case, the study will use samples of former inmates of the Connecticut juvenile prison. These are individuals who were once (or more than once) jailed at the prison when they were under the age of eighteen. This study design will not permit the researcher to use other sources such as the administrators of the juvenile prison or the parents/guardians of the former juvenile inmates. The reason for this lies in the objectives of the phenomenological research design. The design’s main objective is to equip the researcher with adequate information concerning the experiences of the subjects of the subject with the criminal justice system. Even though other parties such as the administrators and guardians of the former inmates may have some theoretical reasons concerning the criminal experience of the subjects, they are not in the best position to give adequate and accurate information. Flick states that, “the goal of a qualitative phenomenological research is to describe a lived experience of a phenomenon,” (2009, p.143). The use of the former inmates will enable the researcher to have a look into the world of the subjects before, during and after their incarceration. As a result, only the former inmates are able to tell the reasons why they committed crimes in the first place, the reasons why they re-offended and the effectiveness of the prison program as far as reducing the rate of recidivism is concerned. The greatest advantage of using a qualitative phenomenological research design is its ability to provide the researcher with a deeper understanding of the problem under investigation. The researcher, while conducting a qualitative phenomenological study, uses data collection methods that enable him to interact extensively with his subjects. As a result, the researcher is able to empathize with his subjects and view the world through their own eyes. The major disadvantage of using a qualitative phenomenological research design is that its results cannot be generalized to the wider population. In this particular study, the data collected and its results cannot be used to make conclusions and inferences about the total population of juvenile delinquents. This is because the experiences of the inmates of Connecticut differ from the experiences of inmates in other juvenile prisons. In addition, the experiences also differ from one of the sampling elements to the other depending on differences in their cultural, social and economic background. Therefore, the results from the study are applicable to the Connecticut juvenile prison solely.
An alternative research design that can be considered for this particular study is the ethnography research design. This research design is conducted through participant observation in which the research lives among the subjects of investigation. Bernard argues that, “ethnography is a form of research focusing on the sociology of meaning through closed field observation of socio-cultural phenomena,” (2005, p.67). While living amongst the subjects and taking part in their every day activities, the researcher attempts to gain a deeper insight into their world, the things they cherish most and the meanings they attach to different things. However, this does not always guarantee that the researcher will have a clear understanding of the group under investigation just by merely observing and participating in their lives. There are some cultural aspects of every group that an outsider cannot be able to comprehend unless the community members explain them to him. This therefore requires the researcher to select a few informants from the community who would explain the vague issues to him. The researcher gathers data about topics of importance to the community from these informants through interview. The interviews can be repeated over and over again using different informants until the researcher is able to have a clear understanding of the group under study.
The ethnographic research design can be applicable to the study to some degree. However, for it to be successful to the study of juvenile recidivism and juvenile prison programs, the researcher would need to use a well trained individual who age is close to that of the juveniles. The trained individual would then be placed in the Connecticut juvenile prison where he would take part in the daily activities of the inmates and interact with them on a personal level without the knowledge of the inmates. Through such personal interaction, the individual will be able to know the reasons why the inmates landed in the prison in the first place and why some of them have been engaged in re-offending. The researcher will also be able to observe the characteristics of the prison programs and factors which render it effective or ineffective in reducing recidivism among juvenile delinquents. One advantage of this study design is that the researcher becomes actively involved in the participants’ lives and is therefore able to understand their worldview. The major disadvantage of ethnography is that the probability of personal bias towards the participants is high and this may negatively affect the outcome of the study (Bernard, 2005). This design, although applicable, is not the best option for the current study. This is because the researcher would have to use another party who looks as young as the participants. This creates the problem of distortion in that the researcher would not be in a position to conduct the research himself and would therefore not be able to clearly understand the problem under investigation from the participants’ perspectives. To overcome this limitation, it is best for the study to be conducted through a qualitative phenomenological research design.
Participants and sampling technique
The participants of the study will include former inmates of the Connecticut juvenile prison. In order to facilitate in-depth interviews, a small sample (of twenty individuals) will be selected. The participants will be selected based on their demographic and socio-economic information at the time of their incarceration. This will enable the researcher to take into consideration the influence of different socio-economic factors such as level of education, cultural and ethnic background and household income on criminal tendencies. As a result, the participants of the study will include former inmates from different age groups, genders, different ethnic communities (Whites, African Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans), different household incomes and different family structures (intact as well as dysfunctional families) at the time of incarceration. In order to accommodate all these groups, purposive sampling will be used to select the sample. Purposive sampling is normally used when the researcher wants to use participants who will achieve the major objective of the study (Hesse-Biber and Leavy, 2005, p.73). This will ensure that only those participants who are most likely to make a significant contribution to the study are selected. In addition, the sampling technique provides focused information and saves time and money. The main disadvantage of purposive sampling is that it is not a probabilistic sampling technique and therefore any data collected from the sample cannot be used to make generalizations about the entire population. However, since the study is a qualitative one and its objective is to provide a deeper understanding of the problem under investigation, this limitation of the chosen sampling technique does not pose any problem to the results of the study.
Data collection techniques and instruments
Collection of data for this study will be done using two different methods: in-depth interviews and focus groups. “An in-depth interview is a technique that allows person-to-person discussion and can lead to increased insight into people’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior on important issues,” (Belk, 2006, p.34). In this study, the in-depth interview will be conducted with the use of an unstructured interview script administered by the researcher. The interview script will contain both closed-ended and open-ended questions to allow the researcher to gain more information necessary for the study from the informants. The interview will not be conducted in any organized manner. Instead, the researcher will choose to ask questions in an order that he seems suitable to the informants depending on the direction the interview will take and on the responses given by the informants. The execution of an in-depth interview follows six basic steps.
The first step involves planning the manner in which the interviews will be conducted. In this study, the in-depth interviews will be conducted on an individual basis at the current residences of the participants. This will enable the researcher to obtain other important details pertaining to the participants. For instance, the type of participants’ homes can tell a lot about the current financial situation of the participants. The second step involves deciding who the informants will be. In this study, the informants will be twenty former inmates of the Connecticut juvenile prison. The third step is the preparation of the interview script. The researcher should decide on the types of questions that will be asked during the interview making sure that the questions help to achieve the major objectives of the study. An important issue to be considered is the framing of the questions. Open-ended questions are most suitable for an in-depth interview because they will prompt the informants to explain their points in great detail. The fourth and fifth steps involve selection and training of the interviewers respectively. These steps are used if there is a need to have external interviewers (other than the researcher). The last step involves conducting the actual interviews with the informants at the selected setting and recording the collected data (Belk, 2006).
Focus groups are “an informal assembly of participants whose opinions are requested about a specific topic,” (Zikmund, 2003, p.56). Focus groups as a method of data collection will classify the participants into smaller groups according to their ethnic origin, age, gender, and family structures. For this study the Whites, African Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans will be grouped separately. The male participants will also be grouped separately from the female participants. Participants will also be classified according to their ages and their family structures at the time of incarceration. The researcher will then conduct discussions with each of these groups to enable him gain a deeper understanding of the factors that led them to engage in criminal behaviors, their rates of recidivism and their lives after incarceration. The success of focus groups depends to a large extent on their preparation. Some basic steps need to be followed in the preparation of focus groups.
The first step involves preparation for each session. This stage involves identification of the chief goals of each session, carefully developing the major questions to be discussed, and reminding each of the groups’ members of the session approximately three days before the session takes place. The second step is the planning stage which entails scheduling the duration of each session, preparing the setting of the discussions, making plans that will ensure that each of the group’s members takes part in the discussions and planning the recording of the discussions through the use of a tape or video recorder. The last stage is the execution of the discussions according to the plan and recording them as they take place. Through these groups, the researcher will be able to understand how the prison experience has impacted on their lives and how effective (or not) the prison program is in correcting criminal behaviors among juveniles. Besides the interview script and tape recorders used during the interviews and focus groups discussions, note taking will also be used as a data collection instrument. Note taking is useful to record the non-verbal communication and other observations which provide valuable additional information to the study (Maxwell, 2004).
In-depth interviews and focus groups are relevant to this study in a number of ways. First, the two methods require that the researcher should establish rapport with the informants. The informants should be able to trust the researcher while the researcher should have respect towards the informants irrespective of their conflicting beliefs (Silverman, 2004). This is because in-depth interviews and focus groups discussions are conducted through a close and personal interaction between the researcher and informants. Second, the two methods allow the researcher to clarify any vague responses given by the informants. They also enable him to dig deeper and probe further when he feels that the responses given are too short or inadequate and that the informants are holding back useful information. The informants also have the opportunity to provide additional information that they feel would be appropriate to the study (Charmaz, 2006). This is useful in any qualitative study because its main objective is to understand the thoughts, feelings, experiences and opinions of the participants. This can only happen through a deep and extensive interaction between the researcher and the informants.
Analysis in qualitative research first involves coding of the collected data. Coding of qualitative data entails the classification of the raw data into categories in an attempt to find existing relationships among the categories. Basit (2003) argues that coding involves “noticing relevant phenomena; collecting examples of those phenomena; and analyzing those phenomena in order to find commonalities, differences, patterns and structures,” (p.144). The creation of classifications however prompts the production of a theoretical scheme that is suitable to the data. The scheme assists the researcher to derive questions from the data, to make comparisons of the data, to make alterations to the categories, to eliminate some categories which are unnecessary, and to arrange the categories in a hierarchical manner. It is important to recognize two separate, although interrelated, stages of data coding: one stage concentrates on the meaning of the data within the research, while the other concentrates on the meanings of the data that may be useful to external readers (Silverman, 2004). Coding of qualitative data often results in compressed data that is easy to manage and analyze. Categories created during coding are not viewed in isolation from each other. Instead, each category, though different from the rest, is interrelated and interlinked with all the other categories. This helps the researcher to make sense of the data in the light of the problem under investigation keeping in mind the social viewpoints of the participants. When researchers create categories, they are in the process making resolutions about the organization of the data in a useful manner that will assist the analysis process. The categories therefore have to be incorporated in the broad analytic framework. Basit (2003) argues that, “codes are links between locations in the data and sets of concepts or ideas, and they are in that sense heuristic devices, which enable the researcher to go beyond the data,” (p.145).
The analysis of the data collected in this study will be conducted using several steps. The transcripts from the interviews and focus group discussions will be analyzed through thematic content analysis using a mixed coding chart. The themes will be derived from the research questions and conceptual framework. In the first phase, data reduction, the transcripts will be read and the text coded sentence by sentence in order to identify the main themes presented by the informants. In the second phase, data display, the themes identified by the informants will be classified into a conceptually clustered matrix (Silverman, 2004). Cross-case analysis will then be used to establish any existing relationships between the themes and to identify converging (themes that are commonly identified and shared by the different groups of participants), diverging (themes that are commonly identified by the informants but whose application differ across the different groups of participants), and marginal themes (themes that are sporadically identified by some of the participants). The final phase will involve drawing conclusions, making inferences and providing recommendations to the juvenile prisons based on the findings. In this stage, the interrelationships between the converging, diverging, mirror and marginal themes will further be examined and studied again in order to identify the major factors that cause juveniles to engage in criminal activities and to re-offend as well as the problematic areas of the juvenile prison and how the program can be improved to enhance its effectiveness.
Rigor, validity and reliability of the study
There are three important issues that need to be addressed and ensured in any study, whether qualitative or quantitative: rigor, validity and reliability. A rigorous research is one that uses tools and techniques that are fit to meet the study’s objectives (Neergaard and Ulhoi, 2007, p.113). The methods used in this study will guarantee the rigor of the study in two ways. First, the methods used to collect data, that is, in-depth interviews and focus groups will produce data that is appropriate enough to answer the research questions. This is because in both methods, the researcher will be actively present while gathering data from the informants. The researcher will therefore have the power to direct the interviews and discussions in a manner that will produce relevant information for the study. Second, the methods used to collect data will produce the suitable level of detail necessary for answering the research questions. In-depth interviews and focus groups allow an extensive exploration of the issues under investigation through clarification and probing of further information.
In qualitative research, reliability and validity are gauged by measures such as credibility, conformability, consistency and dependability. Credibility and conformability are measured by the degree of the truth with which the researcher reported the data collected from the informants (Golafshani, 2003). Qualitative research requires that the researcher should have an open view towards the opinions of the informants even when their outlook contradicts the researcher’s outlook. It is not his duty to report what he thinks should be the responses of the informants but rather what exactly the responses are. This requires the researcher to identify with the informants and actually empathize with them by sharing in their own world. The two methods that will be used to conduct the study will provide the researcher with this opportunity because the researcher will have time to actively interact with the informants. This will ensure the credibility and conformability of the study. On the other hand, consistency and dependability of a qualitative research depend on the procedures used to code and analyze the data. In this study, the same technique will be used to code and analyze all the data collected by the different instruments to ensure that the results of the study are consistent and dependable.
The qualitative design that is most applicable to this study is a qualitative phenomenological study. Data will be collected through in-depth interviews and focus group discussions using interview scripts, tape and video recorders and notes as the data collection instruments. The data collected will then be analyzed by first coding them and then drawing conclusions from the interrelated and divergent themes. It is hoped that these methods will enable the researcher to gain a deeper understanding of the problem under investigation.
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