Reframing the Discourse Around Juvenile Delinquency in Therapeutic Settings

Facebook Twitter More...

By: Julia Sussman

Donald Winnicott, an English pediatrician and psychoanalyst, made crucial contributions to the field of adolescent psychology in the mid-20th century. His theories, which are extremely relevant to our current juvenile justice system, explore the connotations of the term “delinquency.” He posits that antisocial tendencies, such as lying, aggression, and impaired communication, are inherently linked with deprivation, the lack or denial of something considered to be necessary. In other words, troublesome children often experience a specific failure that resulted in their negative or socially-unacceptable behaviors. It is crucial to think about juvenile justice through this lens for often the criminal legal system swings on a pendulum between restoration and punishment. Winnicott strongly argues that punitive responses to troubled children not only fail to address the root of the issue but also exacerbate “bad” behavior.

In the past century, American society has made children more culpable for crimes committed at young ages despite brain science arguing against this. Looking at the Central Park Five case as an example, five Black and Latino teenagers were scapegoated nationally for the rape of a female jogger. Headlines painted the boys as aggressive, animalistic perpetrators that enacted violence without rhyme or reason. Although police used manipulative methods to procure admissions of guilt, the hysteria surrounding the crime made it so that public opinion widely considered the children inherently evil and violent. The level of panic surrounding children had an instantaneous effect on legislation, social programs, and the broader discourse surrounding juvenile crime. With nationally captivating, sensational headlines like “Wilding Teens Held in Rape” and terms like “bloodthirsty savages,” the case cultivated an enormous response from the public and policymakers. Mainstream media reflected a united endorsement of punitive solutions rather than an investment in social programs or campaigns that would reduce violence such as gun control or expanding welfare. In conjunction with George H.W. Bush’s $1.2 billion anticrime spending package, public policy began to place juveniles within new punitive measures for violent crime—in fact, “forty-four states across the nation began to embrace juveniles within the jurisdiction of the adult criminal courts. In 1998, around 200,000 youths were placed into the adult court system, the majority of which were Black. Although youth violence had declined by the late 1990s, John DiLulio’s opinion piece “The Coming of the Super Predators” seeped into the public’s consciousness and echoed the panic surrounding children. The five men incarcerated for the Central Park jogger case were exonerated in 2002, but the impact of the hysteria had already permeated newsrooms, legislation, and public opinion. 

In our current political climate, different states have taken on different methods for dealing with youth crime. While some funnel funding into social or therapeutic programs, the predominant narrative in the media continues to criminalize youth without acknowledging how their behaviors developed in the first place. Winnicott organizes antisocial tendencies into two types of clinical manifestations: safe and unsafe exploration. Contrary to what you may believe, safe exploration is still characterized by aggressive outbursts. What makes it safe is the therapeutic setting, where an adult/caregiver/parent does not respond with anger and punishment but rather addresses the feelings and experiences of the child. Winnicott describes delinquency as a sign of hope because the child unconsciously seeks a new outcome, one where they are not punished.

“The child, without knowing it, hopes to be able to take someone who will listen back to the moment of deprivation or to the phase in which deprivation becomes consolidated into an escapable reality. The hope is that the boy or girl will be able to re-experience in relation to the person who is acting as psychotherapist the intense suffering that followed immediately after the reaction to deprivation. The moment that the child has used the support that the therapist can give to reach back to the intense suffering of that fateful moment or period of time, there follows a memory of the time before the deprivation. They cannot get on with their own lives until someone has gone back with them and enabled them to remember by reliving the immediate result of the deprivation.”  - Winnicott (1967)

Many studies have shown that while youth crime is a growing international concern, harsh sentences and punitive approaches increase the chances that youth will re-offend. As UNSW Law Professor David Brown says, “Deterrence is very largely an article of faith.” Many young offenders suffer from a variety of issues, frequently rendering punitive frameworks inefficient and ineffective. Studies of youth released from residential corrections programs find that 70 to 80 percent are rearrested within two-three years. Many studies also find that incarceration increases recidivism among youth with “lower risk profiles and less serious offending histories.” In addition to being expensive, counterproductive, and oftentimes traumatic, punitive approaches do not prove to be effective when compared to rehabilitative programs, which have been shown to reduce recidivism rates and overall provide better outcomes for youth offenders. 

It is essential to take these ideas into account when looking forward to the future of juvenile justice. Focusing more on therapeutic, rehabilitative programs and less on punishment and incarceration will not only be more financially efficient, but more safe and helpful for curbing youth crime.  

The views shared here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice.