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."

The project, of course, has not been without setbacks and disappointments. Slack still regards the three boys who were returned to prison as cases where a little more care might have succeeded. One of the boys is currently in Army prison after having gone a.w.o.l. in the service. "I had a feeling that he would go over the hill, but I cooperated with others who thought the Army would straighten him out." Slack pointed out that three others from the project are getting along fine in the service. "We found that we have to let the boy make the decision himself," he said. Despite the fact that the boys work continually with expensive equipment at the laboraotory, only one theft has occured on the premises during the three years of the program. Slack feels even this can be attributed to the negligence of the experimenter. "Twenty-five dollars in one-dollar bills was stolen on Ash Wednesday by a subject who didn't have a full-time job and was facing the prospect of being seen on Easter Sunday without new clothes," Slack explained. "Around here this is a disgrace among the younger crowd from the poorer neighborhoods. Anyway, the money was left in the room with the boy and was fairly hanging out of the experimenter's coat, which was draped on a chair. The experimenter was at fault for leaving such temptations around." Much later, the subject admitted the theft, but the money was not recovered.

Authorities Slow to Respond

Slack's success in gaining the cooperation of municipal authorities has not equaled his success with delinquents. He has even been informed of the possibility of arrest under state pornography laws. This incident occurred after Slack played for a judge and his court psychiatric staff a tape recording in which a youth explained exactly why he had refused to work with police psychiatrists. Slack thought the information might be of value to the authorities. While not accepting the youth's statement as literal truth, Slack believed that it characterized the boy's reactions:

"So they sent the guy to see me, some guy who asked me a whole bunch of questions: 'You got any strange habits?' and all that stuff. So I mean, what the hell do they expect you to feel in there? You tell them...then after a while you say what's the use of telling them guys...This was a weird looking --. Just like a regular guy you see in the movies: bushy hair, thick glasses, mustache. His eyes looked like they went right through you. He was only there about 15 or 20 minutes. Then he says, 'If your mother and someone else's mother were in a room nude, which one would have something to do with?' I was getting--. I says 'your mother.' He blew his top, you know."

Apalled at the language used and the naughty episodes related, the judge indirectly informed Slack that playing the tape to anyone, even the subject of the recorded interview, might constitute a violation of state law. Since Slack's program derives its chief benefit from allowing the subject to hear and consider what he has said at an earlier date, his work was severely hampered. Piqued by the attitudes of juvenile authorities and exasperated by their generally futile techniques, Slack has compiled "a list of steps to be taken by those who are not interested in reducing adolescent crime." Among the "steps:"

1. Hold workshops on "The integration of community services with adolescent needs."

2. Publish books entitled "The Psychodynamics of Grandmothers of Pre-delinquents" and papers in learned journals entitled "Delinquent sub-culture at the crossroads."

3. Establish a committee of experts to study "Reorientation of settlement house programs."

4. Engage in million dollar fund-raising campaigns. The money is to be invested primarily in clerical staff to handle correspondence and records, and in real estate, construction, and remodeling. The end result should be large glass-walled "Child guidance clinic" buildings (a handy target for the bricks thrown by delinquents.)

5. Assume that Low Rent Housing will decrease deliquency. Be sure to make the court-yards spacious enough to be used as battlefields.

6. If a good-hearted citizen of some prominence (but no professional training) tries to help a delinquent go straight, be sure, if you are a social worker or court psychiatrist, to have "serious question" about his "underlying motives," preferably suggesting a latent homosexual complex.

"One possible answer"

Slack does not claim, of course, to have found a panecea for juvenile delinquency. "I'm not a crusader or 'mad scientist' saying that I have all the answers," Slack emphasizes. "However, I do believe that we have found one possible answer." He readily admits that a better method may be discovered in the near future. For the present, however, the experimenter-subject approach appears to offer the greatest hope in curbing juvenile crime.

With the encouraging three-year pilot project in Cambridge completed and with the basic methods thoroughly tested, Slack believes "Street-corner Research" methods could be set up on a full operating scale. Finding a city willing to implement the project is not an easy task, although supporting the program would put no burden on the taxpayer. Indeed, the taxpayer would save because there would be fewer youths to support in reformatories and later in prison. Streetcorner Research could actually be set up as as a non-profit business and receive payment for each predicted delinquent which the program is able to keep from committing crime. For example, the cost of maintaining a delinquent for one year in training school is about $2500 plus $1000 in court costs. The total cost to the tax-payer is an astounding $3500 per delinquent per year in prison. Under Slack's plan, the local government at the end of three years would pay Streetcorner Research a set fee for every delinquent who had remained free from prison. This fee, of course, would be far less than the cost of maintaining the boy in a reformatory.

Slack admits the program is a little cold-blooded and calculating. But its primary goal is to reduce crime, and if that aim is achieved, society and the community have gained. "We're not 'do-gooders' concerned only with 'helping youth,' and we're not a social service organization," Slack has pointed out. "We want to reduce the amount of crime committed by adolescents." Thus the program is not primarily interested in causing delinquents to conform with American middle-class ideals and may even employ methods which the middle-class would not approve. "If the kids hang out in bar-rooms, the scientist will just have to go into the bar-room," Slack said. "If necessary to gain their confidence we might even buy loud jackets for a gang. In fact, the laboratory will often find itself in the position of using the minor vices to cut down on the major ones." Slack realizes that the public would have a right to object to tax funds being used to buy jackets for gang members, and finds this another reason why the laboratory will initially operate best on private support. "We suspect that middle-class values will be altered by the laboratory as well as lower-class values. Certainly before any community is ready to support this type of research it will have to recognize that there is a lower class in America which has values of its own--something many communities would rather not admit."

Slack Cites Advantages of Program

Slack cites two outstanding merits of Street-corner Reseach: "First, the laboratory will have objective measures. Either it did its job the past year or it didn't. And if it did not, there is no sense wasting money on it in the future." He further believes that if such objective methods could be applied to other approaches to preventing juvenile delinquency, many such programs would be closed down for ineffectiveness.

The second advantage of Streetcorner Research is that it does not require highly trained professional personnel. "If it could train a layman to do a job cheaper than a professional, it would hire the layman every time," Slack stated. "This laboratory is not pure science, it is practical." In short, the program does not require a psychiatrist to psychoanalyze and treat each delinquent. Though Slack admits the effectiveness of this method in those cases where the cooperation of the youth can be obtained, he confidently believes that the employer-employee relationship will produce the same results in a greater number of cases and at less costs. Further, because trained professionals are not required, details of Streetcorner Research can be learned and imitated in a great number of cities.

Slack, associated this year with the University of Alabama, is continuing to take up the challenge of juvenile delinquency in new, tough-minded ways. "There is still room for failure," Slack admits, "but there is room for optimism, too.