There is disturbing a trend in Massachusetts and across America that is leading us to be more punitive in how we address juvenile crime. Anyone who thinks that teenagers should be released back into society because they are a minor doesn’t realize how much damage they can do. 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.
I worked with children and their families for over seven years and in two prisons for four years. In my opinion, 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 about 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. While good parenting is at the core of crime prevention, it is not enough. Schools, peers, and entertainment all matter, not to mention learning and developmental disabilities. The job of a parent is increasingly difficult.
When a child becomes a delinquent, it seems to be either a failure of parenting, society or both. We have known since the 1960s from Albert Bandura’s research on the imitation of aggressive behavior that children imitate behavior they see in adults and on TV. They can see violence in movies, video games, on TV and 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 prevention.
The majority of the crime committed by juveniles goes unnoticed by the media. However, the heinous crimes get a lot of coverage – perhaps rightfully so. But politicians quickly propose untested legislation not supported by any evidence. Meanwhile, there are ample prevention strategies available but they are not tapped because it is politically easier to get tough on minors than change societal priorities. Who are we really failing?
It is also important to note that there is abundant research that consistently shows that Scared Straight programs actually make “at-risk” kids worse off; it hardens an already troubled minor and removes the fear of incarceration since incarceration is a right of passage anyway. It is also unfortunate twice over that 1) detaining juveniles is sometimes necessary, but also 2) the evidence on the criminogenic effect of juvenile detention and incarceration is overwhelming. Once a child is caught up in the system, it increases their chances of more crime. This has nothing to do with the staff or mission; this generally occurs for a variety of other reasons beyond the scope of this opinion. I’ve given presentations on prevention and I always note that if a minor is incarcerated, something is wrong, clearly with the minor’s behavior but also the conditions around the minor.
There are no easy answers and solutions are often multifaceted – a list of policy proposals is beyond the scope of this article but it is important to note that they can be done at the individual, family, school, community and political levels. But at the end of the day, can we honestly blame minors? Let’s put it like this if all minors see is violence and no one is socializing them to know or do any different, who failed who? If we fail our children, we fail our own future.
PAUL HEROUX worked in prison and jail for 4 years and with children for 7 years. He is a frequent guest on TV and radio stations and is a Master’s graduate of the Harvard School of Government and has a Master’s in Criminology from the University of Pennsylvania. Paul is a Democratic candidate for State Rep in the 2nd Bristol District (Attleboro). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.