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
Subjects Work, Write
In the laboratory the boys were given a
With attendance steady the program was
Slack organized them into "
Driver's Training Given
Later the "Youth Associates"
The positive results of Slack's
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."