A Unique Solution to Juvenile Delinquency

Local Hoodlums Aid Professor With 'Streetcorner Research'

One hot summer day in 1959 eight teenagers were painting the fence around a public building in Cambridge. The Cambridge Chronicle covered the event, headlining its page-one article "New Teen-age Group Seeks Jobs to Build a Better City." What the newspaper did not tell, however, was that one of the civic-minded fence painters was head of the "Monarchs," a local street-gang, and that all eight of the group had long criminal records. Six months earlier local social workers had labeled them "unreachable cases" and abandoned attempts at their rehabilitation.

Then Charles W. Slack, assistant professor of clinical psychology, began a radical new research program for changing delinquents into useful, job-holding citizens. Sometimes criticized by local social workers, discouraged by law enforcement authorities, Slack's plan has drastically reduced crime among boys on whom it was applied. Of the 25 boys under the program, only three have been returned to prison--an amazing figure when contrasted with the national return rate of 50 per cent. The boys were not picked at random; rather, key gang leaders, "incorrigibles," were chosen for the program. In fact, before Slack was interested he had to be convinced that each boy "had seldom or never been able to hold a job, had an extensive court record, had been in correctional institutions, was unable to save and plan purchases, was convinced that work was for dull people, was fearful that he could not hold a job if he really tried, and was extremely resistant to even the idea of treatment."

Basically, Slack's approach has been to abandon the traditional and futile doctor-patient relationship, substituting a novel employer-employee status. He actually pays the delinquents to serve as subjects for a "research project." His success is based on a phenomenon known to scientists as the "Hawthorne effect" which shows that the subjects in a scientific experiment change during the course of the project merely because they are the objects of special attention. Their very association with a study which has their cooperation induces a general improvement over a period of time. Where the experimenter is able to gain the confidence of the subject, an actual "identification" occurs between the two. "Identification" is the scientific term used for the tendency of those who meet together regularly to reach a common set of values.

In dealing with delinquents, of course, the difficulty of gaining their confidence is the fundamental stumbling block. Indeed, Slack is virtually the first to meet this problem successfully with a standard and easily communicable method. Court psychiatrists, for example, have been tragically unable to gain the cooperation of the worst delinquents. Slack believes conventional psycho-therapy fails because it insists on maintaining a doctor-patient relationship. Delinquents, he holds, refuse to acknowledge in any way that they might need "treatment," that there is any insufficiency in themselves. In fact, one special reformatory in New York which attempts psycho-therapy actually has a rate of return no lower than the national average.

Slack's "Streetcorner Research" program hired its subjects and then paid them for each visit on arrival at the laboratory--no matter how late they might be for the appointment. This follows the theory of "immediate reinforcement" developed by B.F. Skinner, Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology. After a few sessions the youths began attending regularly and the researchers had passed the first barrier: they had overcome to a degree the "no-work ethic" of the group and instilled a congnizance of time. The "identification" resulting from continued association could then take place. The boys became gradually accustomed to regular, though part-time, employment.

In the pilot project completed last spring, Slack and his associates first made a study to learn exactly who the juvenile ringleaders were in Cambridge. Ten "hard-core" delinquents were then offered paying jobs of one hour a day which Slack explained frankly to each boy: "You take tests and tell us about yourself. We're interested in finding out about the kids in the neighborhood, especially those who have been in trouble.... You can quit anytime if you want to, and if you don't like any of the work just tell us and we'll try to fix it up." Often several contacts were necessary before the delinquent ever showed up at the laboratory, but in each case the program was eventually successful in getting attendance. Slack notes, "The first hours were filled with bravado and hostility. But gradually they became dependent on the job and the kindness of the experimenter." "Them--people, from all over, from the Square, Roxbury, Brighton. Everywhere in them cities my name is known, for two things. I'm a hustler; I'm a bad man." At first individual meetings were held. As the project progressed through trial and error, however, it was soon found that group sessions were not only more effective but less expensive as well--a factor of no small importance to the limited funds of the program.

"If you're paying the kids, what they're doing has got to be worth it," Slack soon discover The idea of "conning" the experimenters always a motive of the boys during the meetings, and only respect for the employees could remove it. "We had to be tough minded," Slack explained. "While we would sometimes make a gift--such as a basketball--which strings attached, we never gave anything they might appear to "need." That's charity better for us to leave to another agency, it puts the boy in an inferior position and our relations. We once made a mistake and a boy money to have his teeth fixed. He resentment and spent the money on else. Only later, when he had a regular job, he tell us about it."

Subjects Work, Write

In the laboratory the boys were given a of chores. They were paid to make repairs hold discussions, to keep a record of their activities, and even to write several paragraphs like "Why Kids Foul Up." One 17- wrote, "Because they do not have some of things they want and there is no way to them except to steal and you still do not what you want by stealing them." According a 19-year-old, "Quite frequently kids get stealing cars, so, for my first reason on why foul up, I shall say, for kicks. Most kids up because of ignorance, I mean they don't any other way of doing things, so they their way.... Kids always get the blame something happens, and they don't get a to tell their side of a story, and even when do (which is very rare) no one believes them

With attendance steady the program was to try more ambitious undertakings. Because boys expressed repeatedly the need for movement among urban Africans.

Slack organized them into " Associates for Community ." Stationery was printed the boys' names at the top with the names of several leaders who served as " On the letterhead you scarcely tell which were the linquents," Slack commented The group's first project was painting at the local Salvation building. For the job they got 75 an hour. "If we had asked them the beginning if they wanted to our fair city they would have told what we could do with the town. had to lead them into it with money as an incentive," noted.

Driver's Training Given

Later the "Youth Associates" playground equipment for a school, did maintenance work church, and conducted a driver program. Slack found the program particularly effective. " a driver's license is an thing to them," Slack has "They're usually careful not to anything that might cause them lose it. It's the kids who don't licenses who steal cars." In a visit the home of one of the boys, found the newspaper article on " Associates" framed and hung on living room wall. "I thought his would be in the paper only for B E (breaking and entering)," mother told Slack.

The positive results of Slack's perimenter-subject program over past three years certainly justify radical departure in the basic of dealing with delinquents. crucial point is that rehabilitation the individual delinquents is not direct objective of the program. aims are rather 1) research in the and behavior of delinquents order to reduce crime and 2) more portant, getting the youth to a regular activity in his life--a job. "These kids don't need recreational facilities as much as they need hard work," Slack claims. The boy is a paid and voluntary subject in a research project, not the patient of a court-appointed doctor. There is no moral instruction and no entreaties or threats to "reform." Any change in the subject is his own doing, and the boy gets the credit. The program does not attempt to change them and, unlike court officers, need accept no responsibility if they do not change.

In the eyes of some local policemen, an occasional "old-school" judge, and many social workers, this is "coddling" delinquents, rewarding them for their previous misbehavior. Indeed, one large psychiatric foundation has refused support for the project. "They say we're not doing basic research," Slack says somewhat bitterly, "but we've found a way to reduce crime." He hastens to add, however, that the project has recevied sufficient grants from other groups. Slack is firmly convinced that the experimenter-subject approach can reduce the trend in juvenile delinquency in any community willing to give it a fair try. "Every way his wrong which only tries to 'help' kids," he states emphatically. "It won't work. We make the kids help us. That's what we've got to show people. We purposely set ourselves up so that we can be proved wrong. Yet at the end of the year the records show that the kids we deal with--all hard-core delinquents--have actually committed far fewer crimes."