Adolescents are the most vulnerable population to criminal engagement. At the same time, finding appropriate intervention measures for crime among this population is challenging due to the variety of risks that they face. In most cases, youth engagement in crime can be traced back to factors beyond their control, which should have been addressed through other intervention strategies that focus on entire families. The most common criminal tendency among youths is violence. Adolescent engagement in violent behaviors begins with delinquency, which if not addressed satisfactorily can escalate into violent criminal activities, which may result in murder case implications. Finding the most appropriate treatment approaches for such cases would therefore imply digging into the roots of the problem and understanding the motivations behind such behaviors. Effective treatment approaches are difficult to come by, and a multidisciplinary approach is most recommended.
Case Review and Adolescent Issues
Liptak (2005) describes the case of Rebecca Falcon, a 23 year old youth in jail for life due to her engagement in criminal violence. While the facts of the case do not implicate her explicitly, her presence at the scene of crime at the time of crime and subsequent lack of proof that she was the actual perpetrator saw her sent on life imprisonment for the case. Prior to the crime, Rebecca had lived a reckless life, in that she associated with a thuggish group that influenced her negatively. She had previously attempted to fit in with the cheerleaders and with heavy metal people but failed to find recognition. She eventually, under the influence of pop music and culture, began changing her dressing style, which enabled her to attract the wrong crowds of people. At the time of the crime, she was in the company of an 18 year old friend who was in possession of a gun. They boarded a taxi, and the driver got shot a few minutes later. The friend insisted that Rebecca had been the shooter while she reported otherwise. Eventually, they had both been incarcerated.
The case of Rebecca Falcon reflects various characteristics of adolescent engagement in crime. In a research conducted by Remschmidt, Martin, Niebergall and Heinzel- Gutenbrunner (2014), it was established that violent crimes among youths originated from a combination of factors including psychological and social factors, neurobiological factors and situational factors. These behaviors result in antisocial behaviors or delinquency which later progress into violent delinquency if not checked. Neurobiological factors include birth defects, mild physical abnormalities, structural and functional brain disorders, genetic factors, development or psychological disorders and congenital abnormalities (Remschmidt et al., 2014). The sex of the adolescent is also a risk factor for engagement in violent behaviors. Psychosocial influences include reduced intelligence, school drop-out, unfavorable surroundings, unfavorable familial influences, and media influence and personality traits among others. Situational influences on the other hand include opportunity, peer pressure, alcohol and drug use, access to weapons and ideological or political outlook (Remschmidt et al., 2014).
Most violent youths come from families with a history of criminal convictions, substance abuse, mental illness and instability (Kethineni, Blimling, Bozarth & Gaines, 2004). This therefore means that effective interventions to such cases would require an understanding of the particular cause of violence among the subject of. The peripheral perception created by the case is that Rebecca could have been having various issues at the family and school level, which she could have been assisted to address. The most common challenge in adolescence is the need for identity and social inclusion. This is evidenced by the desire of young people to be part of various social groupings which they consider to be reflective of the kind of life they desire. Rebecca’s case presents an example of this desire for social inclusion, combined with an identity crisis. It is the need to be part of a social grouping that led the victim to her gangster friends. Rebecca however portrays a slight deviation from the conventional adolescent engagement in criminal activity, in that research has shown that male adolescents are more likely to be engaged in violent criminal behaviors (Kethineni et al., 2004). Understanding the onset of such behaviors is required if an effective intervention is to be achieved for cases such as that of Rebecca.
The juvenile justice system is designed for correction and rehabilitation of children who engage in criminal activities. Adolescents are most affected due to their interest in risky behaviors. Caldwell & Rybroek (2013) reported that as much as various approaches have been tested for their capacity to treat adolescents engagement in violent behavior, only a handful have proven effective. Studies continue on best approaches for treating violence among adolescents. The implication of such findings is that as much as the juvenile justice system may incarcerate adolescents for their violent tendencies, failure to implement the right strategies in treatment results in intervention failure. Various assessment and treatment approaches have also been recommended for future implementation. Caldwell & Rybroek (2013) asserted that most of the approaches that have been proven effective possessed similar characteristics in terms of their philosophical beliefs, structural treatment approaches and their theoretical frameworks. Findings show that a suitable approach therefore, requires an establishment of the most appropriate theoretical models for intervention in cases of adolescence violence. Caldwell & Rybroek (2013) further opined that the approaches that succeeded in treating violent criminal behaviors in adolescents all utilized multidimensional approaches to treatment. The multidimensional approach is also recommended by Joseph Rowntree Foundation (1996).
According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (1996), the society should be focusing more on the prevention of violent criminal behavior among adolescents than on the treatment of such behaviors. However, the prevention of youth crime requires the use of techniques that reduce the violent crime risk factors among adolescents. Such techniques include: frequent home visits for the vulnerable youths, pre-school intellectual enrichment programs for children from low income families, classroom management practices, provision of peer guidance programs, parenting education programs and conducting anti-bullying initiatives in schools. These suggestions are based on the perceived drivers of violent behaviors among adolescents which include psychological and social problems and neurobiological problems as previously mentioned. The suggestions are thus founded on the argument that adolescents only engage in crime as a result of pre-exposure to risk factors (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 1996).
Assessment and Treatment of Violent Criminal Behaviors in Adolescents
Adolescent specific issues such as the need for support and identity influence their potential for engagement in violent criminal behaviors. According to Barclay & Hilt (2014), assessing violent behaviors among youths should entail consideration of the facts from the affected adolescent’s perspective. For this to happen, the assessment process should not only be rigorous but also centered on the suspected criminal. Questioning the affected adolescents can help to understand their rationale for criminal activity based on their own reports. While in the process of interrogation, the adolescents need to understand that whatever information they give is confidential. In the juvenile justice set-up, this can be achieved by engaging social workers who may not be linked directly to the case investigations. The objective of such questioning is to determine the condition of the adolescents prior to engagement in violent crimes and thus identify the triggers to violence. The best approach for a social worker to use in such a case entails being informative, sharing information with the suspects about impacts of various experiences in the past on adolescence behaviors, and building trust in the victim.
Barclay & Hilt (2014) also posited that the inquiry tone should be non- judgmental, open and in plain language. One of the interrogative approaches that have been recommended by experts is described as FISTS (fights, injuries, sexual violence, threats and self- defense). This is an approach to questioning in which the social worker asks questions that are intended to determine the actual type of violence in which the suspect was engaged and the reasons behind it (Barclay & Hilt, 2014). It is at this stage that the social worker can get the history of the suspect including on child abuse and neglect experiences and drug use history as well as the situational factors surrounding the crime. Situational factors have also been identified as a potential trigger to violent criminal behaviors among youths. The factors include drug and alcohol use prior to engagement in violence, provocation and peer influence (Remschmidt et al., 2014). It is thus important for the interrogator to confirm the accuracy of the information obtained from the suspect.
The interrogating personnel can obtain collateral information from friends, parents and the school regarding the past behaviors of the targeted individual. Moreover, screening tools such as polygraph tests could also be used to determine accuracy of information received. In most cases, adolescents face challenges that require separate interventions either during or prior to the incarceration or rehabilitation at the federal juvenile justice systems. Information from teachers and parents could reveal certain aspects of the case that the adolescent may not reveal on their own. For instance, information on a history of violence and/ or family instability can only come from parents and teachers respectively. With such information, the choice of treatment approaches can be matched to the actual problem faced by the adolescent. For instance, it would be worthless subjecting a violent youth to a jail term of 7 years, and have them undergo re-incarceration due to continued association with the wrong group of friends for lack of appreciation at home. A holistic treatment approach is more effective in any juvenile violence case.
Treatment approaches that have been implemented in the past with effective outcomes include: beginning education about criminal behaviors at early stages, referring the adolescents for social skills interventions, resolving inadequate parental supervision issues prior to involvement in the juvenile justice system and addressing issues of inconsistent limit setting by parents. By educating children about the dangers of criminal activity at early ages, they grow up understanding and avoiding any instances that may drive them towards such violent behaviors.
For those who are noted to be at risk such as adolescents with attention deficit hyperactivity disorders, referral for social interventions can cap violence in the early days. Sociopathic tendencies can also be observed and addressed through social intervention practices before escalation. Where there is inadequate parental supervision or inconsistent limit setting, the parents are to be called upon to address parenting practices before it is too late (Barclay & Hilt, 2014). Such deficiencies in parental supervision can result in failure to recognize depression symptoms, which are somewhat common among adolescents. Yu et al. (2018) reported that violent behaviors are symptomatic among adolescents and young adults who experience depression. Most of the adolescents however do not even notice when they are depressed hence information from parents, teachers and friends could be the most reliable indicator of past symptoms of depression in adolescents.
Practical intervention measures described by Barclay & Hilt (2014) also correspond to the multidimensional approaches discussed by other authors such as Remschmidt et al. (2014). According to Barclay & Hilt, multi-systematic therapy, which focuses on the human and social systems surrounding adolescents, can be used as an intervention measure for violent criminal behavior. Such systems include: the school, home and community environments. The multi-systematic approach can therefore be described as a community treatment approach which helps adolescents by providing sources of support in their immediate social environments. The approach is designed to increase connections, provide strong social structures, enhance parental and peer supports and increase parental oversights on adolescents.
Another aspect of the multidimensional approach to treatment is the solution of concurrent mental health disorders among violent adolescents. Disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression and anxiety disorders, and substance use disorders are some of the risk factors for violent criminal activity in adolescents (Zajac, Sheidow & Davis, 2015). The use of evidence based treatment approaches is also recommended as an effective strategy for the treatment of violence in adolescents (Lewandowski et al., 2013). Evidence based practices could include cognitive behavioral therapy and psychodynamic therapy for the treatment of substance abuse disorders and depression respectively. Addressing issues of access to lethal crime weapons such as firearms is also another concept that has been extensively discussed by Barclay & Hilt (2014).
On their part, schools should provide options for students to improve academic performance through engagement in academic oriented activities during leisure times. Any organization intending to treat and thus reduce the prevalence of adolescent engagement in violent criminal activity can implore schools to establish programs through which they can identify youths at risk of violent behaviors and also Children in need of services (CHINS). Post identification of such vulnerable groups, professionals should be engaged at the school level to help in coming up with rational, fair and standardized school based methods for responding to threats (Barclay & Hilt, 2014). In this way, adolescents can avoid violent criminal behaviors in which they engage as a process of self defense.
The Future of Violent Criminal Behavior Treatment
In the recent years, Remschmidt et al. (2014), opine that the prevalence of youth engagement in violent criminal behaviors has reduced. According to the authors, this is probably due to an increase in the implementation of multidimensional approaches to treatment which take into consideration the neurobiological, psychosocial and situational drivers of violence among adolescents. Most studies conducted on juvenile criminal activity have also focused on determining the causes of criminal activity and aggression among adolescents. In return, the dearth of information on adolescent criminal behaviors has increased significantly, resulting in greater awareness among parents and teachers. The overall outcome has been an increase in parental surveillance and educator vigilance in relation to adolescents (Kathineni et al., 2004). Various programs established within school districts to help prevent adolescent crime have also increased the potential for youths to avoid criminal behaviors through more constructive use of their leisure time.
In the coming years, it is projected that the prevalence of adolescent criminal activity in general, will reduce even further. The integration of multidisciplinary professionals in the juvenile justice system is an appropriate response to the findings on the efficiency of multidimensional treatment approaches. As such, it is expected that the systems will continue to provide a holistic treatment process to those who are subjected to juvenile justice systems not only for violent criminal behaviors but also for other crimes. Anderson & Begenschneider (2015) reported that with the implementation of family based rehabilitation approaches in the juvenile justice system, they have become the most cost effective and also have the greatest return on investment. This is a reflection of the efficiency of a multidimensional approach to treatment in the juvenile systems.
There are various reasons that can be used to explain the engagement of adolescents in violent criminal activity. However, finding the most accurate reason requires an in depth understanding of their situational factors from their own perspectives, that of parents as well as that of their teachers and friends. Effective treatment approaches match the recognized causative factors to the observed symptoms through the use of a multidisciplinary treatment method based on evidence based practices. Research has shown that such approaches have resulted in the cost effectiveness of the juvenile justice system, which cannot be replicated in any other justice system.
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