Juvenile Delinquency: If We Fail Our Children, We Fail Our Future

While youth can do serious damage to others, it is easier to build a child than repair an adult, and that is why crime prevention should begin very early.
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There is a trend in America that is leading us to be more punitive in how we address juvenile delinquency and offending. It might be warranted.

Anyone who thinks that our youth should be released back into society because they are a minor doesn't realize how much damage they can do. For example, a child with a weapon has very little appreciation for the consequences of what that weapon can do. I can't even imagine the horror that a parent must feel when a child is lost at the hands of another.

However, Abraham Lincoln said that the severest justice isn't always the best policy. I agree.

Do we want to prevent crime or respond to crime? If we want to respond to crime, we will have to do so after someone has been victimized. If we want to prevent crime, we must look at what causes it.

Factors in Early Life

While youth can do serious damage to others, it is easier to build a child than repair an adult, and that is why crime prevention should begin very early.

A developing fetus' brain and later impulse control are affected by the mother's foods and by stress levels; children learn how to act in the world by what they see others do, and they learn about controlling aggression through adults. Generally speaking, a teen is too impulsive and their brains are not even fully developed to fully appreciate the consequences of heinous crimes.

We have known since the 1960s from Albert Bandura's researchon the imitation of aggressive behavior that children imitate behavior they see in adults and on TV. They can see violence in movies and video games and on TV, and they can listen to it in music. I am not in favor of censorship, but I am in favor of self-imposed industry discretion, since more is at stake than profits. And I've heard the arguments about how violent music is an artistic expression of a subculture. If this is true, perhaps the producers won't mind donating their fortunes to the victims of murder, or to prevention.

Good parenting is at the core of prevention, but sometimes it is not enough. Schools, peers, community conditions and entertainment all matter, not to mention learning and developmental disabilities. The job of a parent is increasingly difficult. And then there is also bad parenting: abuse, indifference to developmental needs, and inconsistent discipline are all very important problems, too.

Government Intervention

The majority of delinquency and offending committed by juveniles goes unnoticed by the media. However, the heinous crimes get a lot of coverage -- perhaps rightfully so. It takes a brave politician to step up and do something, and some do. But too often, too many politicians quickly propose untested legislation not supported by any evidence. Politicians need to be highly involved with what should be done; they have the bully pulpit, can raise awareness and can allocate funds. Leadership is important. There are ample prevention strategies available, but they are not tapped enough, because it is politically easier to get tough on a vulnerable population than change societal priorities or risk appearing soft.

Who are we really failing?

It is very important to note here that there is abundant research that consistently shows that Scared Straight programs actually make "at-risk" kids worse off. Scared Straight hardens an already troubled youth and removes the fear of incarceration; incarceration is a right of passage for many troubled youth anyway.

If we are talking about sending a child to prison, we are acting like it is either too late for that child, or we are likely setting that child up for a life of even more crime. Incarcerating our youth is unfortunate many times over:

  1. Detaining juveniles is sometimes necessary, which means that damage has already been done.

  • The evidence on the criminogenic effect of juvenile detention and incarceration is overwhelming.
  • We are robbing our community of a youth who might have otherwise been able to contribute had conditions been different in that child's life.
  • This child will eventually grow up to be an adult; a child who does not have a normal childhood is likely to struggle and be a burden on other citizens for the rest of his or her life.
  • What a sad state of community when we are locking up children. Delinquency and subsequent incarceration is not what childhood is supposed to be about.
  • Once a child is caught up in "the system," it increases their chances of more crime. This usually has nothing to do with the mission, which is often well intended, or the staff, who are usually caring professionals. Subsequent delinquency and offending and later crime generally occurs for a variety of other reasons.

    The idea that we should "get tough on kids and that will teach" them is not only ignorant; it is dangerous. The intervention and course of action that needs to be taken to rectify delinquent behavior all depends on what behavior we want to curb.

    A Medical Model Approach

    There is no one solution to resolve juvenile delinquency and youthful offending. Delinquency and offending, like medical illness, is caused by many factors, and there are different remedies necessary to resolve the different types of delinquency and offending. For example, are we concerned about drug use, violence, cruelty to animals, fire starting, truancy, theft or something else? The problem will determine the most appropriate course of action.

    Additionally, when considering the cause of the juvenile delinquency or youth offending, are we looking at a learning disability (LD), conduct disorder (CD, a precursor and prerequisite for antisocial personality disorder [ASPD]), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), childhood depression or some combination of these, manifesting itself in delinquent behavior?

    Is the behavior the result of some organic factor? Is it learned? Did the child suffer from some trauma to the brain during development, or was the developing fetus subjected to a poor diet? Was the delinquent behavior the result of bad parenting: abuse, inconsistent discipline, neglect and indifference to pro-social behavior, or being raised to believe that being bad is good?

    All of these factors are very important, and they may contribute to juvenile delinquency and offending and criminal behavior later in life.

    I reiterate my earlier point: good parenting is at the core of prevention, but sometimes it is not enough. Government intervention and treatment are important, but alone they are insufficient, too. There are no easy answers to serious juvenile delinquency and youthful offending -- solutions are often multifaceted.

    At the end of the day, can we honestly blame our youth when they go astray? Let's put it like this: if our youth are inundated with violence on TV, in video games, in movies and in their communities and no one is raising them to know or do any different, who failed whom? This is a crisis that could undermine America's place in the world. If we fail our children, we fail our own future.

    Paul Heroux worked for a state prison and a county jail, and with children for seven years. He holds a Master's in Criminology from the University of Pennsylvania and a Master's in Public Administration from Harvard. He can be reached at PaulHeroux.MPA@gmail.com.

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