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youth detention

Adolescent development and delinquency

David Roush writes for those who work with youth in secure care and youth detention facilities

Instead of juvenile detention, what if this were your first day on the job at Joe’s Service Station? You have just been hired to change or fix flat tires. It sounds like a simple task, but you notice a variety of equipment associated with each job. Do you need to know how these things work? Does understanding how to operate a pneumatic drill to remove lug nuts help you do your job more efficiently?

Do you remember the first time you cut the grass with a power mower? Did someone explain to you how the mower works, where the dangerous parts are, and how to turn it off in case of an emergency or problem? You probably felt more comfortable and safer as you learned more about the operation of a power mower.

The more knowledge and understanding you have about what you are doing, the more likely you are to do the job better, more efficiently, and more safely. The same thing applies to working with juvenile offenders. The better you understand juveniles, the greater the likelihood that you will be successful at the job and will be able to ensure the health, safety, and well-being of the youth you supervise, your coworkers, and yourself.

In recent years, there has been less emphasis on adolescent development as an area of knowledge essential for juvenile detention caregivers. The assumptions found in adolescent development and delinquency theories contradict many contemporary views of juvenile justice. As will be discussed later, an understanding of developmental stages as well as the biological and psychosocial correlates of delinquency support the belief in a diminished capacity on the part of juveniles. The more you understand why delinquency occurs, the more you are obligated to use your skills to improve or remediate this diminished capacity. The more you buy into the idea of diminished capacity on the part of young people, the greater the obligation to help.

A conservative approach to juvenile justice minimizes diminished capacity, looks at offense seriousness as an indicator of maturity, and reasons that all serious and violent offenses are a product of a rational decision-making process. Using such a free-will perspective, many people involved in juvenile justice subscribe to the belief that juveniles carefully and thoughtfully choose to break the law. If you believe that youth are totally free from outside influences and forces, then their behaviors (or crimes) would be the result of their choices. From this perspective, you need only make the consequences of their choices more painful or aversive so that they do not choose this behavior in the future (a punishment-based approach to juvenile justice). This belief relieves you of any responsibility to help, and you may then consider yourself a "correctional officer" or "guard." The National Juvenile Detention Association (NJDA) is not aware of any evidence to support the effectiveness of this strategy for changing the behavior of juvenile offenders. For this reason, your job is that of a "caregiver."

Choices and diminished capacity
Charly Skaggs developed a delinquency prevention program based on the concept of choices. His assumption was that the majority of juvenile offenders made poor choices (chose crime) because of a diminished capacity fueled by a lack of good information. Without good information and knowledge about how and why juvenile offenders behave the way they do, you also could operate under a diminished capacity and make poor decisions about your job. You are not working in adult detention; this is juvenile detention. The difference is not only a matter of age but a matter of development. We do not have the same expectations of a freshman in high school that we have of a freshman in college. Like the acquisition of knowledge, personality development occurs sequentially, and problems with the sequence can lead to delinquency or other problem behaviors.

All human beings progress through stages and processes as they develop into people. These processes include:

Development occurs in sequential stages. Each stage builds on the experiences of previous stages and involves interdependent physical, cognitive, emotional, and social processes. Full maturation and realization of developmental potential can be influenced positively or negatively by the complex interaction of various factors, including:

Adolescence as transition
Adolescence is the period of transition from childhood to adulthood. This transition is a time of rapid changes in body, emotions, attitudes, values, intellect, relationships (parents, peers, authorities), freedom, and responsibilities. During this period of change, the main goals of an adolescent include:

It is important for the juvenile detention professional to remember that great developmental diversity occurs during this stage (approximately between the ages of 12 and 18) and among adolescents of the same chronological age. So much is changing for the adolescent in the areas of physical, mental, emotional, and social factors that there is great variability and often a great difference between youth of the same age.

Basic needs
Every behavior is explainable as an attempt to meet or mediate among needs. Indeed, much of life is a continual struggle to resolve conflicting forces. Basic needs include survival, a sense of belonging, power, freedom, and fun. Survival needs include food, clothing, shelter, and reproduction. Everyone desires a sense of belonging (loving, sharing, and cooperating). Healthy adults and juveniles need to feel a degree of power over their lives. Power needs include competing, achieving, and gaining importance.

As a person begins choosing his or her behavior, that individual experiences freedom. It is particularly important for juvenile caregiver staff to provide the greatest possible opportunities for youth to exercise their desire for the freedom to make choices.

Having fun provides an adolescent with time to learn and play. These times of pleasure allow a welcome relief from the pressures of the institutional process.

This feature: Roush, David W. (1996). Desktop guide to good juvenile detention practice. US: National Juvenile Detention Association. pp 45-46