Do delinquent teens see criminal activity as something positive?
Many adults assume that they do. However, research by Rachel Swaner and Elise White, published in 2010 by the Center for Court Innovation, suggests that for some youth at least, their attitudes and values are not anti-social at all. Though the youth outcomes in their study were not terribly positive, it underscores the need to provide youth with opportunities to do positive activities that reinforce their positive values.
The study, titled, "Drifting Between Worlds: Delinquency and Positive Engagement among Red Hook Youth," involved a small sample of 44 youth in a housing project in Red Hook, Brooklyn. About half participated in Youth ECHO, a positive youth development program that enlisted the youth themselves in choosing community problems to tackle, and creating guerrilla marketing campaigns to address them.
A few highlights from the study:
- Youth participating in the program thought they were doing important, useful work that "mattered to other young people." They also "expressed a desire for more opportunities for positive engagement, specifically for programming that was youth-led."
- The youth wanted to be seen as successful and wanted to obtain skills that would help them find work. Also, they "did not value 'easy money' or express a desire to get by without working."
- The young people tended to define "crime" as violent. They did not see low-level delinquent behavior -- such as fighting, doing alcohol or drugs, or truancy -- as criminal. "Moreover, the youths identified basic reasons for committing these petty crimes, saying that 'there's nothing else to do' and that they need the money gained through their petty crimes to live." (Bear in mind, however, that these youth were engaged mostly in low-level delinquency, and were not, for example, involved in serious gang activity.)
Here's what I found most interesting:
- "Despite their desire to effect positive change in their community, Youth ECHO participants struggled with consistently avoiding the activities they were supposed to be condemning, as well as other delinquent activities. For example, a couple of participants reported continuing to sell drugs. During the course of their participation in the program, the numbers of all participants having been arrested and having used alcohol, cigarettes, or marijuana in the past 30 days significantly increased from 43 percent, 19 percent, and 29 percent, to 52 percent, 33 percent and 38 percent, respectively. These increases were potentially due to one of the cohorts ending their program in the summer, when they had more free time to be engaged in those activities. Other survey data showed that greater civic engagement was correlated with feelings that delinquent behaviors (e.g., skipping class without an excuse, petty theft, smoking and selling marijuana) were not wrong."
The authors concluded that youth attitudes toward crime and pro-social activities are more complex than we give them credit for. Their description of youth "drifting between worlds" of criminality and productive work seems perfectly consistent with what we know about adolescent development: teens are still malleable. Sure, they'll commit a crime because they're bored or need money, but the next day, they'll turn around and make a positive contribution to their community because caring adults took the time to engage them and focus their energies.
The question is, are we providing them with enough "windows of opportunity" to contribute to our communities?
The above story is reprinted with permission from Reclaiming Futures, a national initiative working to improve alcohol and drug treatment outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system.