Empowering Our Youth to Do Right, Instead of Daring Them to Do Wrong

Empowering Our Youth to Do Right, Instead of Daring Them to Do Wrong

By Ernest Saadiq Morris, Urban Youth Justice

It is in society’s interest to modify and prevent potentially destructive youth behavior that can harm themselves and their community. A recent report on how Oakland youth are being taught game theory as a way to improve their life decision-making and avoid violence in their community; and a resurgence in “scared straight” youth crime prevention programs brings into focus how differently these programs engage youth for ostensibly the same purpose.

Making the right decision can be difficult when you’re young. But some community organization are working to empower urban youth in Oakland with a more strategic decision-making process to help them transform their lives and their communities.

Strategic thinking teaches and requires the discipline to consider all possible scenarios and rank your priorities before making a decision. Game theory is a method of strategic thinking used as a tool to anticipate the best decision in a scenario by focusing on how the decision-maker’s preferred results are affected by interactions with other competing participants with their own preferred results.

In a zero-sum scenario, a decision-maker assumes there are only limited opportunities and resources available. If getting your own piece of the pie is directly affected by how much is left for you if someone else gets theirs first, your decision is motivated by a desire to be a “have” or fear of being a “have-not” or some combination of both. In an oppressed or disadvantaged community the zero-sum approach is a common life perspective for good reason. It’s hard to imagine a win-win scenario for yourself and your community, when you believe from life experiences that there are not enough good results to go around.

Game theory says that even if opportunities and resources are scarce there are still multiple scenarios and multiple options that lead to an informed decision. Teaching youth to analyze all of their options –instead of relying just on instinct, fear, or stereotypes– should lead to better decisions as individuals and ultimately for the community as a whole.

In stark contrast is the recent revival of juvenile justice “Scared Straight” programs –made popular in the 1970s and 1980s –that has even resulted in a new reality show, “Beyond Scared Straight,” on the A&E channel, as reported in Youth Today.

The idea of government-sanctioned abuse of youth by felons as entertainment should be widely accepted as bad idea. But even more so when researchers have already discredited “scared straight” programs as ineffective at youth crime prevention and rehabilitation. According to recent research by the Campbell Collaboration, as cited in Youth Today:

The analyses show the intervention to be more harmful than doing nothing. The program effect, whether assuming a fixed or random effects model, was nearly identical and negative in direction, regardless of the meta-analytic strategy.

“Scared straight” programs are similar to juvenile justice policies that lock up youth offenders in adult jails or house nonviolent youth offenders with violent youth –in that they actually increase the likelihood of future, more serious crimes. Furthermore, “scared straight” programs have the dubious distinction of relying on the purposeful infliction of emotional distress upon youth participants by violent career criminals that intimidate and threaten their well-being.

Indeed, in an unusual move, two U.S. Department of Justice officials authored an op-ed detailing these concerns and criticizing “scared straight” programs as ineffective and traumatizing.

The DOJ authors summarized the Campbell Collaboration research findings that youth exposed to scared straight programs were more likely to offend, but also shockingly detailed findings that multiple youth participants reported being robbed of their personal belongings, as well as receiving sexual advances from inmates while in the program.

In light of this evidence, the U.S. Department of Justice discourages the funding of scared straight-type programs. States that operate such programs could have their federal funding reduced if shown not to have complied with the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.

Contrasting these two juvenile justice outreach programs illustrates that threatening and daring our youth that they aren’t tough enough to survive the consequences of their risky and potentially self-destructive behavior (i.e, prison) –while potentially traumatizing their psychological well-being– is not providing the support and guidance needed to help youth avoid bad choices and risky behavior. Rather, empowering our youth with the skills and tools to assess and navigate risk should improve their decison-making and encourage them to aspire to productive goals, resulting in a better future for our youth and their communities.

* Ernest Saadiq Morris is founding director of the public education and advocacy initiative, Urban Youth Justice; a youth rights advocate/youth empowerment speaker; and civil rights & liberties lawyer. You can follow Urban Youth Justice daily on Facebook and Twitter.

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