Rotten Apples

Unrestricted curfews, searches, seizures and other warrantless forms of government interference are inappropriate for general populations. Nonetheless, the law enforcement community has legitimate concerns. Some minors are dangerous or criminal to the point that government intervention is required. Some parents are hopelessly unable or unwilling to impose adequate oversight for such minors. How should Utah deal with chronic bad apples?

To answer this question, we need to consider what motivates problem youth, the nature of the harm they create, and the methods most likely to interrupt the dysfunctional dynamic surrounding them.

Most problem youth are animated by two basic deficiencies. First, they crave acceptance from peers who tend to be reckless, indolent and criminal. Second, they seek immediate personal gratification and have not internalized patience, persistence, goal-setting, emotional control, consideration of others, or investment for future reward. Further, disconcerting as it may be, problem youth by definition tend to exhibit an inherently malicious or reprobate nature. They will find their way to trouble and become unmanageable regardless of any parent, and even if afforded every opportunity in life. Unlike conscientious youth, or even aimless drifters, problem youth are unique in that they cannot be adequately guided merely through focused positive support from peers, relatives or civic institutions. Problem youth have demonstrated a pattern of behavior exhibiting a compelling need for coercive government intervention backed by the power of law enforcement.

Problem youth are like rotten apples. They continue to rot themselves away for lack of will to do anything other than reinforce the factors contributing to their own downward spiral. Whether in school, prison, or elsewhere, they acquire insidious tactics from other malfeasants. They will continue to press the limit with escalating episodes of misbehavior until one day a line is crossed with some crime so serious that their character and social record has been damaged beyond repair.

Rotten apples spread their rot through the apple barrel. For example, problem minors use government schools – and when possible, other civic institutions – as platforms for influencing other more benign minors through peer pressure. They disrupt government schools and impede the safe, collegial environment needed for others to learn efficiently. On the streets, problem minors help spread vandalism, drug use, garbage, theft and violence. A general atmosphere of lawlessness, fear and chaos consumes their neighborhoods. Gangs arise to secure social acceptance and protection.

The key to stopping this is extended, immediate, preemptive intervention targeted against young minors (especially males age 10-14) convicted of acts exhibiting early signs of chronic criminal behavior. Youth who commit depraved acts of violence or sexual misconduct – murder or forcible rape, for example – should be automatically subjected to stiff adult sentences. Youth who are mentally ill should be treated. But most problem youth enjoy cognitive capability and just steadily escalate from minor offenses to more serious ones. Numerous studies help predict such risks in an empirical way. For example, extended state intervention is probably warranted for a young boy who engages in repeated offenses involving substance abuse, arson, serious battery, gang crime, or depraved torture of an animal, even if initial criminal sentences are mild. The pattern and nature of such repeat offenses strongly predict a minor who is out of control and will soon pose a severe threat to others. This is in contrast to a minor with one foolish act of youthful indiscretion – fist-fighting, experimenting with marijuana, or committing a nonviolent prank – who does not re-offend.

To help a wayward minor devolving into a pattern of repetitious, escalating bad acts, officials must isolate the minor from peer interaction. This severs the corrupting influence exerted by other bad apples. Simultaneously, isolation prevents the miscreant from influencing other youth with harmful peer pressure. As a visible punishment, isolation also deters other potential offenders.

Having severed the peer dynamic, the next step is to impose a strict regimen designed to inculcate positive habits consistent with discipline, focus and composure. This is accomplished through a prolonged feedback loop of stimulus and response, with constant oversight and regulation. Bad acts are punished; good acts are rewarded. This is accomplished by stripping away the social gratification obtained by misbehavior; eliminating normal perks of adolescence such as driving, social activity and late-night activity; imposing social sanctions, social isolation, extensive physical labor, routine drug testing and restricted movement; and requiring academic study.

In practice, this means law-abiding minors would enjoy access to school choice and freedom from hassle by law enforcement. A minor convicted of exhibiting an early but troubling pattern of repetitious criminal behavior – most often, of gang-related offenses – would be under house arrest and supervised parole lasting for several years, and perhaps even until age 18. The offender would be subject to constant random drug testing and 24-hour curfews, conspicuous standard-issue attire, and (if necessary) GPS tracking. He would not attend a normal government school or be in prison, but instead receive educational instruction in a regimented, discipline-heavy environment. He would not be permitted to interact with anyone not on a list approved by the court after consultation with his parents or caregiver. He would be compelled to participate in physical labor, including marching through troubled neighborhoods under armed guard to clean up graffiti, remove trash, clean vacant lots, shovel snow, paint, tend public facilities, and perform manual farm labor tending plants and animals.

An offender who exhibited continuous compliance would be permitted to live at home (or, if necessary, a foster home) and perhaps be eligible for a one-year reduction in probation and/or reduction of parole restrictions. A serious parole violator would serve out the remainder of his time incarcerated in a conventional correctional facility.

Proving a counterfactual is impossible, but I believe this kind of tailored, integrated approach would drastically, economically and appropriately reduce juvenile crime.