Over the years much research has been conducted and many theories have developed that attempt to explain the escalation in youth crime. If one ascribes to the theory that people choose to commit crime, one must provide context for that choice. The choices young people make are influenced by a complex set of relationships
between peers, family, school, work, environment and political and economic resources (Ginwright, 2002). The environment in which these youth grow and develop influence the choices they make. Environmentalists speak to toxins such as pesticides, air pollution
and chemical hazards. James Garbarino builds on the work of environmentalists and asserts that the presence of violence and poverty in urban communities generates social toxins that influence decisions and negatively impact the well-being of exposed individuals (Garbarino, 1995). These social toxins may include violence, poverty, domestic and sexual abuse, family disruption and racism and young people in poor and urban communities are the most severely affected. Some of the outward signs of this toxicity take the form of apathy, fatalism and self-destructive behavior, all of which can potentially promote, evoke or force involvement in the juvenile justice system.
Is there a single factor that impacts juvenile crime more than any other? The answer is no. However, if one could choose a single factor on which to focus time, energy and dollars, education would be an excellent place to start. For the intent of this paper, education is defined as the acquisition of knowledge both formally and informally, through multiple opportunities, occurrences and situations.
Knowledge is power. Knowledge allows for understanding, problem solving and both critical and abstract thought. It also opens the path to self-awareness, social awareness and global awareness. These three stages of awareness take the individual along a path through self discovery and evaluation, provide understanding of how the individual’s immediate social world functions and provides context for where the individual fits in the greater scheme of things. This multileveled awareness can offer great opportunity for change in an individual, helping them see more complete “pictures” of their circumstances and providing greater understanding of what change is needed. This particular ideology is presented by Ginwright and Cammarota in their paper New Terrain in Youth Development: The Promise of a Social Justice Approach. In this paper, they state that while larger social, political and economic forces can negatively affect the well-being of urban youth, local community practices can promote healthy youth development. This is in keeping with the recent ideas being implemented and tested in association with community policing. There is a focus on the micro rather than the macro. This paper states that a social justice model offers three key contributions to the field of youth development.
1. The attention is shifted from individual and psychological frameworks onto the problems confronting young people.
2. The focus moves to larger sociopolitical and economic factors affecting youth.
3. Young people are encouraged to explore the causes of community and social issues and take action to address them.
For this model to be successful, it must have education at its core on both sides of the fence.
When should education start? Prenatal! Starting any later puts the child and society at risk. There has been significant research and data collected associating poor prenatal care with negative physical and mental impact as well as a long list of learning disabilities. A child born in ill health, mentally impaired or otherwise “behind” will be negatively impacted when it comes to education. They begin the informal education process at a deficit and this deficit begins to grow as their education is formalized. Economically disadvantaged mothers should receive education about the impact of their actions and inactions on the child they carry. They should also receive intensive education on nutrition, anger management and how to care for a newborn. Newborns are at extreme risk for perinatal trauma. Perinatal trauma is one of the earliest measurable factors linked to central nervous system dysfunction. “A number of studies have linked perinatal trauma with intellectual deficits, reading and math disabilities, academic failure and developmental anomalies” (Pagani, 1998). A child’s behavioral characteristics may also be affected.
Once the formal process begins, disadvantaged and/or impaired youth should have access to specially designed and focused preschool programs that address their special needs. They should be tested and programs should be adapted to meet their specific needs. According to the National Council on Disability, while special education grants for children with learning disabilities have been successful at curbing delinquency, most schools do not provide sufficient services to meet the needs of all at risk minors. “The Council recommended that the Education Department enforce regulations that require schools to meet the needs of special education.” (Anonymous a, 2003). The elementary education system could offer much hope for disadvantaged and/or impaired youth by continuing to focus on developing the skills that will allow these children to continue learning, while they are still young and patterns have the potential to change. They may need stress management, anger management, ways to stay focused and strategies to overcome specific learning disabilities. This shift would require a more open curricula and teachers and administrators trained to identify learning disabilities and stress induced educational deterrents. This would require more and ongoing education for the teachers and administrators.
Post-elementary education, where most delinquency begins to manifest in earnest, is in need of the biggest changes. One idea that shows promise is the Career Academy Concept. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention encourages the establishment of partnership academies, schools within schools and school to work programs as part of a strategy to meet educational needs of at risk youth. These programs are designed to keep juveniles in school and reduce delinquent behavior, while enhancing protective factors for at risk youth. These programs provide smaller groups within the larger educational community and allow focused approaches specific to the needs of the group (Coffee, 2002). One of the biggest complaints heard from teens in high school revolves around relevance, i.e., “I don’t see how this has anything to do with me or what I want to do.” In speaking with people of a variety of ages and backgrounds, they all seem to echo some version of this dissatisfaction with school. Whether this speaks to the teachers, the institutions or the curricula is irrelevant. If young people do not understand the connection between education and their future, why should they show up?
Beyond the formal education programs of the school, which should be focused and appropriate based on the individual child rather than the convenience of time, space and dollars, after school programs are critical. According to a report offered by the Youth ARTS Demonstration Project, preliminary results, “arts programs provide a positive, productive and time-consuming activity for youth that helps them stay out of trouble and gain self discipline.” (Anonymous b, 1999). These programs are implemented to divert youth from gang and drug activity, provide more cost effective strategies of “after care,” reduce truancy and improve academic performance, while building critical self-discipline, communication and job skills. The Americans for the Arts organization has released a toolkit containing information about running an after school arts program for at risk youth.
Since drug related crimes are the crimes fastest filling our juvenile courts and detention facilities, drug education must be a component of every level of education. Health education must also be forefront, in particular for teens with regard to the development and changes in their physiology, sexually transmitted diseases in general and HIV in particular. There should also be some element of “life skill” education, budgeting, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, minor repairs. Knowing how to stretch that dollar into two is a life skill anyone can use.
If all fails and a juvenile offender comes head to head with the system, one of the most promising programs seems to be the Safer Foundations Youth Empowerment program. This program is said to defy every common expectation about young offenders and classrooms (Tonn, 1999). The programs developed by and emanating out of the Safer Foundation’s work identify that these youth offenders failed to prosper in school. They are embarrassed by their deficiencies and resist instruction to avoid more failure. The programs are mindful of the typical offender clientele and their need for stimulation, low tolerance for tedium, hostility toward institutions, conflict with self-image, fear of failure and apprehension about success. Rather than feed into these negatives they approach learning in an open environment with peer teachers. The traditional teacher becomes a facilitator and guide rather than the sole keeper of the knowledge.
Many of these needed changes will be slow in coming. This is where the rub begins between the existing educational bureaucracy and the ideology of teaching. Change is a “red headed step child” to most. When the change hits the horizon, panic and fortification begins. People like their “status quo” and anything that threatens it will meet with resistance. Because the education system is such a giant and so deeply seated in our society, it will be difficult to pry it out of the way. One of the largest and fastest growing vehicles for change has been and will be the Internet. Education is now within a mouse click of anyone who desires it. The Internet offers an unprecedented tool in the fight against ignorance, racism, poverty and crime. Yet it is still in its infancy and not all are comfortable with it or have access to it.
Once the giant is ousted and replaced by nimble fairies that embrace change, the biggest challenge remaining is evoking the desire to learn, grow and change in both parent and child. While children are born with an innate desire to learn, this desire is often stifled or overwhelmed by apathy, fatalism and self-destructive behavior. The educational system itself, because of rigidity and the “one size fits all” approach can significantly contribute to this stifling and overwhelming. This desire must be nurtured and can only be evoked if a clear link can be shown between lack of knowledge, ignorance, and limited opportunity.
This link can only be shown to those who have hope. Hope comes when an individual can see change as a possibility. Change, as a possibility, starts with opportunity. Opportunity comes when a door is opened.
Anonymous a., 2003, Disability Programs Reduce Delinquency,
Anonymous b., 1999, Toolkit Provides Successful Prevention and Intervention Strategies for at-risk Youth
Coffee, J. Pestridge, S. 2002, The Career Academy Concept
Garbarino, James. 1995, Raising children in a socially toxic environment
Ginwright, S., Cammarota. J., 2002, New Terrain in Youth Development: The Promise of a Social Justice Approach
Pagani, L., Trembly, R.E., Vitaro, F., Parent, S., 1998, Does Preschool Help Prevent Delinquency in Boys with a History of Perinatal Complications?
Tonn, Ron, 1999, Turning the tables: The Safer Foundation’s youth empowerment program