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mattbrowne's avatar

Guided prison tours and the art of coercion - What are the best strategies to deter young offenders from committing further crimes?

Asked by mattbrowne (31648points) October 8th, 2009

The other day I was watching a very interesting documentary about a project in Hamburg, Germany. Copying the approach of taking real alcoholics to schools to share their personal stories, a group of social workers and psychologists recruited a small team of ex-convicts and trained them in communication skills, showing them how to be active listeners and to learn the art of coercion.

Each of them was put in charge of a group of young offenders. They organized guided prison tours and at the end of each tour there was a 3-hour meeting in a room where the young offenders met several senior inmates. All of them had once been young offenders themselves committing the same crimes as their visitors like snatch thefts, pickpocketing, breaking into cars, vandalism, shoplifting before moving on to more serious crimes.

The young offenders could easily identify themselves with the senior inmates and realized they were headed toward the same career path. The inmates described at length how it was to be in prison for several years. Some struggled to hold back tears. The facilitators led the Q&A sessions and following discussions. One task was to identify the reasons leading to all the crimes. Yes, my father beat me too, but… and so forth. At school this and that happened…

There are several trouble hotspots in Hamburg and the project began in only one particular district. Two years after the project kicked off, statistics clearly show a significant decline in juvenile delinquency in this district. Maybe there are other reasons as well, but I found this amazing.

What is your opinion? What other strategies do work and which don’t? I’ve also heard about a project in Berlin using “district counselors” visiting parents regularly to help them improve their parenting skills. Some people suggest tightening the laws is key. Others want video cameras installed everywhere. What are the best strategies to deter young offenders? Any interesting ideas?

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20 Answers

Divalicious's avatar

My facility has done this in the past with teenage offenders. Our last attempt was 2 months ago, and the convict was superb in getting his message across to the kids. Most were in tears during his recitation of what he’s lost and what he regrets. The CO that accompanied him shook his hand afterwards when he returned the convict to his housing unit.

Unfortunately, the draw of easy money from drugs or prostitution lure far more in than honest facts can dissuade. Instead of tours, these kids need adult guidance throughout their lives, starting at a young age. Teach them respect for rules and authority. Teach them how to disagree without resorting to violence. Teach them that education is important. Teach them to deal with disappointment.

The young people we get have such an sense of entitlement. They expect everything to be handed to them and they don’t understand that rules apply to them. Society and their families haven’t done them any favors.

It does “take a village to raise a child”, but the people bringing these kids into the world need to step up and take responsibility for guiding them.

OpryLeigh's avatar

I believe that there is no single thing that will work in deterring young people from becoming criminals instead I believe that a number of things should be put in place and they will work together. I do believe in tightening the law in certain circumstances. Too many people get pathetic punishments for their crimes that I fail to see how they act as a deterent and when I put myself in the criminals point of view I can easily see how they wouldn’t be worried about reoffending because they know that even if they get caught their punishment will be so miniscule that it won’t be a major issue to have to deal with. Of course I don’t think this is always the case which is why tightening the law won’t ct as a deterent on it’s own.

I love the idea of young people talking to/hearing from/meeting offenders. I recently saw a TV programme on the BBC about a 17 year old binge drinker. She claimed that her alcohol intake was ok, despite doctors telling her that it wasn’t, because she wasn’t an alcoholic but a binge drinker and the two are different. Anyway, she was taken to a homeless shelter where there was a large number of alcoholics or ex alcohlics all of whom had lost everything due to there obsession with drink. One man sat with her and discussed his life and at the end of their conversation he was crying and he said something along the lines of “I am dying and have lost everyone and everything that ever mattered to me, please don’t do the same”. It so happened that he started of as “just a binge drinker”. Well, I can tell you that at the end of that part of the programme I was in floods of tears and you could see that the girl was genuinly shocked. Hopefully that conversation will always stay with her.

As far as parenting is concerned, I firmly believe that a good start in life can (not always) make a huge difference and this all starts with parenting. As a young child your parents have a huge influence on your beliefs, behaviour, language etc and often parents make mistakes that they don’t necessarily mean to make due to lack of time, funds etc. For this reason I don’t think anyone should be ashamed to ask for help or guidance when it comes to raising their children in the best possible way.

I’m not sure I have answered your question as you would have liked but I am very intrigued to see what others will have to say.

JONESGH's avatar

Not sure if this is what you’re saying, but at my high school we always have the “drug guy” as people call him. He’s basically an ex-heroin addict who comes every year to tell stories of his life that scare us away from doing anything illegal. Accompanied are pictures from his life on drugs etc etc. I’ve found that it wasn’t very effective though.

mattbrowne's avatar

@JONESGH – Yes, I was referring to the drug guy effect in schools. I’ve read about a large scale study with ex alcoholics visiting German schools. Kids don’t believe their parents or teachers that alcohol has the potential to become a very dangerous drug ruining people’s life. Now this model seems to be reused preventing crimes.

JONESGH's avatar

@mattbrowne As a high school student, I’ve found this method works for a week or 2 tops after the “drug guy” comes. But once it stops being the recent news in a high school, kids forget about it and are back to drinking and partying on friday nights. With that said, I think the drug guy on long term would be effective. Perhaps a school club to hear other rehabilitated speakers that would give students extra credit in classes or something. There would have to be some kind of reward because no student would go without it. To really prevent crimes through warnings like this they would have to be repeated consistently, otherwise kids forget, or stop caring about it.

RedPowerLady's avatar

In America they have attempted similar interventions with little affect. They often have an immediate affect on the young offender but unfortunately that affect does not seem to last. What we really need to do is start working at the level of prevention because no matter how much you deter these youth the sets of circumstances that led them to a life of crime are likely still present.

What can work is putting teens into programs led by ex-offenders. Of course this usually involves many agencies working together but ex-offenders to seem to have more success running these programs than others. Also these programs are long-term which is a benefit itself.

I want to say I could probably discuss this forever. I worked in a youth detention (juvenile hall) for half a year as part of a college internship. I am also involved with a non-profit organization that focuses on prisoner re-entry. Basically this organization makes it possible for those who re-enter society after a prison stay to have a stable environment with resources so that they will not re-commit crime and thus reduce recidivism. It is a topic that I find quite interesting and affects my cultural community significantly.

fundevogel's avatar

The thing is a drug guy functions as a scare tactic. It is designed to elicit an emotional response. But if all it does is elicit an emotional response it won’t have a long term effect. To truely have an impact you would have to change the way at risk kids think about drugs and themselves. Ultimately, they would have to learn that they do have a good future and they don’t need to settle or accept lowered personal standards from themselves or others.

YARNLADY's avatar

It cannot work without giving them an alternative to the circumstances that lead to the behavior in the first place.

mattbrowne's avatar

@JONESGH – What about the communication skills of your drug guy? Was he coached by a psychologist or social worker? Did he really tell his personal story on an emotional level? The point is to leave an impression in a classroom only once, not having a drug guy running around the school all the time. So long term assignments might be counterproductive in my opinion. Also in response to @RedPowerLady: With extra focus the human brain will never forget certain stories or pictures. So the drug guys or ex convicts need to leave a lasting impression (something close to watching the second plane hit the South tower).

mattbrowne's avatar

@fundevogel – How do you explain the significant drop in this one Hamburg district then? Was the coaching part that made the difference?

mattbrowne's avatar

@YARNLADY – Well, I would only agree partially. There are youngsters who fail school and have a hard time finding a job and still they don’t turn into criminals or become alcoholics. But of course any society must have an interest that no one gets left out. My very radical approach: we actually have to reinvent simple jobs that can be carried out with very little education. I’m a fervent supporter of a good education for everyone on this planet. But some people will manage to avoid it. Some people will lack the discipline. What do we do with them? Give them computer games and a six-pack of beers every day?

YARNLADY's avatar

@mattbrowne We need to give them a new set of parents. Some have proposed that the society where Aunts and Uncles or other family members exchange teens would work.

I agree with your point of bringing back menial jobs like the old fashioned pin setter at the bowling alley, I saw several young people working at a festival the other day, they were leading ponies around a ring with little children riding. There were two experienced horsemen supervising them.

mattbrowne's avatar

@YARNLADY – Yes, absolutely. When the ex-convicts get involved too much damage has already been done by bad parenting. Therefore I’ve also mentioned the new district counselors in Berlin teaching parents good parenting skills. We need aunts and uncles too. I like the African proverb: it takes a village to raise a child. How can we create new villages inside inner cities?

JONESGH's avatar

@mattbrowne the story was told an emotional level and effected many students for a little while, but after time passed they forgot about the effect the stories had on them.

YARNLADY's avatar

@mattbrowne rant time I’ll tell you how it shouldn’t be done. Here in our area, they simply tear down the housing units that have the highest number of police calls, and either leave a vacant lot, or put in a park for the drug dealers to use. It’s a totally wrong use of the taxpayers money.

fundevogel's avatar

@mattbrowne I don’t dispute that the drug guy could produce an intial drop off, just that it would not be sustained if it was purely based on scaring them into line. If the Hamburg folks maintain their dip I’d bet they’re doing more than scaring kids. That or they’re doing a really good job of scarying them. Either way I don’t think its a good long term solution to the problem.

The MADD mothers use the technique every year before prom and if they’re lucky the effect lasts until prom is over. Fear only works as a motivator as long as it remains fresh and scary in the minds of its target.

Also in regards to teaching parents how to be parents, there actually is such a program in New York. It offers daycare for the children of disadvantaged and young parents as the parents attend parenting classes. It is meant to be something the parents start prior to or just after the birth of their child so they can learn good parenting skills before they sink into the bad habits of their parents. And the program continues as the children grow so both the children and parents receive constant support. Apparently it has been successful at breaking some of the worst parenting trends among disadvantaged parents. Unfortunately I heard about it on This American Life a while back and I can’t remember the name of the program.

mattbrowne's avatar

@fundevogel – I agree. The fear factor cannot explain this alone. Maybe they also developed a relationship with their assigned ex-convict and he became a mentor. Maybe he was able to suggest what good stuff they could accomplish. Maybe the young offenders developed a sense of pride for deeds other than crimes.

As for teaching parenting skills I would hope there are plenty of academics brainstorming like crazy and coming up with new strategies which in turn leads to hundreds of pilot projects everywhere. Then we will see what works and what doesn’t. Funding crime prevention does only cost a fraction of the damage done by crimes. Bad parenting is the root cause for many problem in modern society. And all we get is a discussion about how schools have to improve.

ItsAHabit's avatar

The sad fact is that the various “scared straight” programs have not been found to be effective after a short period when the shock value decays. I wish it were otherwise.

fundevogel's avatar

You wish fear was a more viable social control?

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