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Fourth International, Fall 1955


Joyce Cowley

Youth In a Delinquent Society

What Should Be Done?


From Fourth International, Vol.16 No.4, Fall 1955, pp.111-119.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


YOUNG people today are getting an unprecedented amount of publicity – most of it bad. You may have wondered if the youngsters deserve all this – do they really behave so much worse than the “lost” generation of the 1920s or the depression who were driven by joblessness and despair to commit any number of so-called anti-social acts? What about the teenagers of a decade ago when the country was at war – didn’t they get pretty wild, too?

The statistics show, curiously enough, that juvenile delinquency is low during depressions, high in periods of prosperity and war. (This is just the reverse of adult crime which rises during depressions and is lower in prosperity and war.) Juvenile offenses were low in the depression of the thirties, rose during World War II, dropped again in the “recession” that followed the war, and started to climb when the United States entered the Korean War.

In the last five years juvenile delinquency has continued to rise. The latest figures for New York City show that the delinquency rate for young people 16 to 23 went up 52.7% in one year! Throughout the country, one million youngsters under 18 tangled with the police last year.

These figures indicate the increasing quantity of offenses. What is even more significant is the striking change in type of offense. Justice Warren Hill of the New York Domestic Relations Court points out that “our calendars used to be full of children whose offense was jumping over a subway turnstile, hopping on a bus, begging alms or shining shoes without a permit. That is no longer considered delinquency for the court.”

Today teenagers are more likely to be hauled in for murder, rape, armed robbery, use of narcotics, sex perversion and prostitution. There has been a particularly sharp increase in apparently unmotivated crimes of a violent and sadistic character. The “thrill-kill” gang is probably the most melodramatic example.

The case of the four Brooklyn boys who killed for the fun of it shocked many people into an awareness of the profound crisis in the lives of young people today. Max Lerner of the N.Y. Post sums up this reaction when he asks:

“Are they like all our young? The four Brooklyn boys involved in the gang adventures seem like perfectly ordinary middle-class boys. And they seem to come from good homes, and to have been given parental love and solicitude ... Is there a disease rampant and epidemic in America today among the young generation – perhaps even beyond the bounds of America – which infects all of its members to an extent while it affects some of them catastrophically?”

About three years ago Time magazine called today’s youth The Silent Generation. Today’s young people, they said, are completely conformist, conservative and invariably uphold the status quo. I asked myself what Time magazine was complaining about, since it was part of the apparatus which pushed young people into this conformist pattern. Why weren’t they satisfied? Or were they uneasy? Did they feel that American youth had been just a little too quiet and wondered where they would break out next?

I did not anticipate the terrible answer to that question – the beaten and tortured body tossed off a Brooklyn pier by four ordinary boys, four good boys from good Brooklyn homes.

I could not accept the conclusion of Time magazine that youth today are essentially conformist, without initiative or courage, although they piled up a good deal of evidence in support of this thesis. “Young people today,” they said, “are not cynical because they never hoped for much. They expect disappointment. They are the oldest young generation in the world.” The N.Y. Times expressed a similar idea in a survey on youth which they called “The Beat Generation.”

Bill Mauldin in Teenagers – What Gives? which appeared in a recent issue of Collier’s, describes a couple of these “old” youngsters. “For every kid that gets into trouble,” he says, “there are several of another type you don’t notice and who, sadly enough, are likely never to be heard from.”

He talked to a 16-year-old boy who told him:

“I’m a staff man. You know, somebody has to sit back and do the desk jobs. I like desks. I want something steady with a pension at the end.”

Mauldin seemed pretty upset about this boy who planned a pension half a century ahead. He met a similar type, a fellow of 18, who wants to be some rich man’s secretary:

“I’m cut out for that kind of stuff. I’m big and I look tough and I ought to be pretty good at keeping the wrong people out of the office.”

As Time reported, youth’s ambitions have shrunk.

In a Strait Jacket

You may feel that I’ve been making some contradictory statements. I can’t have it both ways. Are young people today turning to violence and crime, or are they, as Time reports, spineless and unprotesting supporters of the status quo?

The answer is that these apparently contradictory tendencies are intimately linked. More than any other young generation in the past, today’s young people are placed in a straight jacket of conformity and fear – fear of the witch hunt, of being branded subversive, of being blacklisted in employment or professional work. Political protest on the campus seems at a minimum. Authorities are united in an effort to mold young people into a rigid pattern so that they will all feel and think and act the same way.

They’ve been fairly successful, but at a price. When there is no outlet for the natural protest and rebelliousness of youth, when they have no perspective and nothing to struggle for that demands enthusiasm, and courage, they turn to a menacing destructiveness and violence – to suicidal stunt driving, teenage gang wars that lead to stabbings, shootings and frequently to death, dope addiction, which in turn drives young people to robbery and prostitution to get the money for dope.

This is my own opinion. Popular journalists, judges, police officers, government officials and the like do not explain delinquency in terms of too much conformity. They have a list of pet causes which runs something like this – working mothers, broken homes, parental failure, TV, comic books, progressive education, lack of religious training, and so forth. Liberals suggest that living in the slums may have something to do with it.

Milton Barron, in. an interesting book on the subject, The Juvenile in Delinquent Society, analyzes each of these popular causes, and shows what role – if any – they have in the development of delinquent behavior.

Working mothers generally head the list. For example, a well-known psychiatrist Dr. Abram Kardiner in a new book Sex and Morality claims that nurseries, schools and camps have taken over while mothers work and the result is an increase in divorce, juvenile delinquency and male homosexuality.

This opinion is not accepted by most people who work closely with delinquents. The nature of a child’s relationship with his mother has a lot to do with his behavior, but whether she stays home or goes to work is usually not a determining factor.

Broken homes are mentioned about as frequently as working mothers. Statistics do indicate that a great many delinquents come from broken homes. Milton Barron points out that a great many non-delinquents also come from broken homes and that if you consider all causes – death, divorce, desertion and illness, the chances are that a majority of homes are broken at some time in a child’s life between infancy and the age of 18. At any rate the statistics are not conclusive and merely indicate that a broken home is one of many factors complicating a child’s development.

Mass entertainment media – movies, radio, TV and comic books are another favorite. Dr. Frederic Wertham, a noted psychiatrist and leading consultant on crimes of violence, recently published Seduction of the Innocent, an attack on comic books that got a lot of publicity. When he was called in on a particularly brutal teenage murder case he declared:

“Children weren’t committing crimes like this 15 years ago. I know. I’ve studied thousands of cases. Children are being: educated to be sadistically inclined and the education, is coming from television and comic books.”

It all depends on what psychiatrist you read. With Kardiner it’s working mothers, with Wertham, comic books. The most serious mistake they make – and this is true of a great many of the experts and amateurs who write on the subject – is the attempt to explain delinquency in terms of a single cause. Human behavior is extremely complicated and there are a great number of interacting forces in our cultural and social environment which combine to produce the anguished and violent protest of today’s teenagers.

I don’t think much of TV and comic books, either as entertainment or education, but to condemn them as the cause of juvenile crime is like saying – as some people do – that the increased use of narcotics is due to the fact that drugs are more readily available than they were 20 years ago. They’re available, obviously, because of the demand – so you still have to explain why there’s a growing demand. It is also doubtful that the evil influence of American television and comic books has extended to the children of Asia and Europe, but reports of rising delinquency come from all sections of the world.

Parental failure is another of these so-called explanations that I find irritating. When Eisenhower made a speech on delinquency in which he gave parents most of the blame, he evidently failed to check some interesting government publications on the subject. Parents and Delinquency, a report on a conference held in 1954, is in pretty sharp disagreement with the President’s thesis. It gives one example in which a group of non-delinquent Puerto Rican boys, attacked by chauvinistic gangs in their school, organized their own gang in self-defense. The two gangs are still fighting, one boy has been killed and many are in prison.

“Now, says the pamphlet, “we get back to where is the parents’ responsibility. These were Puerto Rican parents. The parents were desperately upset at what was happening and they tried their best to do something about it. Then what was the responsibility of the parents of the other gang, of the children who were the instigators of the whole thing? We rapidly found out that, in keeping with the prevalent social norm in America today, where prejudice is the norm rather than the exception, these parents were prejudiced against the Puerto Rican kids. But do we say because our society permits and/or encourages feelings of prejudice, that the parents were responsible when they transmitted such feelings to their children?”

Dr. Harris B. Peck, Director of the Mental Health Services of the Domestic Relations Court in New York City, also believes it’s not the parents, but society, that is the real delinquent, a point of view conspicuously rare among officials who have any connection with the city government or courts.

“It’s hard,” he says, “to instill those built-in controls of hostile behavior when children are being reared in a world that reeks of hostility and in which the whole economy is geared to the ultimate expression of hostility – death and destruction.”

He makes some pertinent comments on a group of parents who failed to respond to treatment. Eighty per cent were mothers who carried the whole responsibility for a fatherless home.

“We brought a number of these parents together in therapy and as they talked we were struck by the immensity of the problems which confronted them. After such sessions we were forced to revise our evaluation of parents who had been characterized as ‘rejecting’ and to appreciate the bitter struggles of these women.”

Who Is Responsible?

Working mothers, TV, comic books and delinquent parents are just popular scapegoats for officials and other so-called leaders who don’t want to face their own responsibility for the tragic crisis of our youth.

Dr. David Abrahamsen in Who Are The Guilty? says: “Each society has the number of criminals it deserves.”

What young people want most is to grow up. Consequently they model their conduct on the adult world they see around them. If this results in murder, rape, dope addiction, sadism, sex perversion and other undesirable forms of behavior, it’s a pretty accurate reflection of what they see. When apologists for our present social system, who try to pass off wars, depressions, racial antagonism and the witch hunt as a normal democratic culture, wonder what’s happened to our young people, I feel like asking – what the hell did you expect?

A curious thing about juvenile delinquency is that teenagers – who presumably don’t have as much self-control and understanding as their elders – are supposed to behave so much better. A great many “crimes” for which young people under 18 are arrested are considered perfectly acceptable behavior if you’re a few years older. Milton Barron lists some of these offenses: knowing association with vicious or immoral persons, growing up in idleness or crime, visiting a house of ill repute, patronizing public pool-rooms, wandering about railroad yards or tracks, habitually using obscene or vulgar language in public places, loitering and sleeping in alleys, using intoxicating liquors, smoking cigarettes, begging or receiving alms ... Many of these would obviously not be considered criminal for an adult.

Dr. Peck of the New York Domestic Relations Court points out that there is a positive correlation between the rate of delinquency and war or cold war. Most of the other articles, pamphlets and books on youth have very little to say about World War II, Korea or the H-bomb. It’s almost 14 years since Pearl Harbor. Today’s teenagers grew up in a world at war.

Young men of 18-19 or in their early twenties did most of the fighting in Korea. Boys automatically face the draft as they get through high school – not only the draft, but the prospect of fighting overseas at any moment United States imperialists decide that Formosa or some other remote territory is worth the expenditure of hundreds of thousands of American lives.

People in their thirties and forties have had a chance to enjoy some of the dubious benefits of the artificial prosperity that goes with war production. They bought homes and cars and television sets. This prosperity doesn’t mean much to a boy of 18. It’s natural, I think, that he should feel he is the object of special discrimination. If you’re 30, in addition to all the other advantages of being an adult, you can stay out of the army, hold down a job and enjoy some of the widely proclaimed material advantages of American “free enterprise.”

At 18 you have no such prospect ahead of you. Even if you don’t get blown up by a super bomb, you will probably have to fight, maybe get killed, in a country you never heard of before which for some obscure reason has suddenly become “essential” to the defense of the United States.

War also underlies many of the secondary factors which are so frequently considered “causes” of delinquency. It was during World War II that so many homes were broken. Fathers went into the army, mothers went to work and children ware suddenly deprived of both parents.

They got very inadequate substitutes. A great deal of the day care provided was substandard, with dozens of children crowded into unsanitary nurseries that had no trained staff, no equipment and no program. Door-key kids wandered the streets without supervision. It was not any feminist desire for a career but the miserable army allotments which drove mothers to work. These youngsters whose lives were disrupted by war are now 16, 17, 18 years of age.

But war is only one factor that contributes to the emotional confusion and desperation of young people.

Statistics indicate that a great many more delinquents come from slums than from middle-class or well-to-do neighborhoods. This is not surprising. Most people agree that it’s an inevitable result of substandard housing, overcrowded schools and lack of recreational facilities. In The Challenge of Delinquency, Teeters and Reinan mann estimate that two-thirds of all young people in trouble with the law are “situational” delinquents.

“They have crime thrust upon them. They are not delinquent no matter how many laws they break. Their behavior is the result of the socio-economic-moral atmosphere in which they have grown up.”

But closer examination of case records and court procedures gives a somewhat different picture. It’s true that most convicted delinquents come from the slums. Youngsters from middle-class families and wealthy families may frequently be delinquent, but unless their offenses are very serious, they rarely wind up in a reform school. The Challenge of Delinquency puts it bluntly:

“There is a differential .treatment of the lower social and economic classes who lack the ability or influence to avoid arrest.”

The delinquency rate among Negro children is almost five times higher than whites. Unless you believe that Negro children are really five times as delinquent – and I don’t – these figures can only be explained by the bias of the judges. Milton Barron confirms this in The Juvenile in Delinquent Society. Judges convict Negro boys at an earlier age, and for less serious offenses, than white boys. While there is a good chance that a white boy will be paroled to the care of his parents – his home is considered a suitable place for him – there’s an equally good chance that a Negro boy’s home will not be considered suitable and he will land in a reform school. There is a curious exception with regard to Negro girls. Teenage girls are generally arrested for sex offenses. The virtue of a Negro girl is apparently not too important, because she frequently gets off without a sentence. But a white girl who is promiscuous will be sent straight to a reform school and stay there for years. According to Barron, this is to protect the virtue and purity of women of the dominant race in cases where they refuse to protect themselves.

There is a good deal of hidden delinquency among middle-class and upper-class youth. The sensational cases that hit the newspapers show that young people from these social groups are frequently involved in violent and sadistic crimes. Undoubtedly they also commit many minor offenses which never reach the attention of the police or at any rate are never prosecuted by them and therefore don’t show up in the statistics. This does not alter the fact that a large number of our disturbed young people grow up in the misery and filth of the rapidly spreading slums of our large cities, with violence and degradation a part of their daily lives. But like war, a bad economic environment is only one aspect of this question. There are other features of our culture which cut through class lines and play a destructive role in the lives of all young people. I’d like to go into some detail regarding at least three of these – home, church and school.

An Old Prescription

I know these three are considered time-honored remedies. A great many different theories are advanced to explain why youth goes wrong, but experts and amateurs alike are agreed on the cure. Home, church and school can fix things up. A boy is sure to turn out OK if you give him a good home, a good education and teach him the fear of God. This fails to explain why many young murderers, dope addicts, sadists and gunmen are well-educated, religious youths from good homes.

Far from preventing delinquency, these institutions may be major factors in bringing it about. Religious beliefs have certainly not proved much of a check on violent crime. Delinquent teenagers interviewed by social workers were more devout, and attended church more regularly, than non-delinquents. A census of penal institutions revealed that 71.8% of the inmates are church members as against 46.6% of the population as a whole. Juvenile gangs are frequently racial or religious groups organized for the purpose of combating other gangs of a different race or religion. The race and religious prejudices which foster this kind of conflict are obviously nothing the youngsters themselves dreamed up and I don’t think I have to point out where they got these attitudes of discrimination and intolerance.

Family relationships as they exist in our society are largely responsible for the emotional disturbances which develop in early childhood and which in many cases lead to violent anti-social behavior at adolescence. A detailed analysis of childhood conflicts is beyond the scope of this article, but an elementary understanding of these conflicts is necessary in a discussion of teenage behavior. It’s true in a general sense that a child’s growth and character development are the result of social and economic conditions, and he is a product of our society as a whole. But as an individual he first comes into contact with this society through his parents and other members of his family. It is their emotional attitudes which first influence him and they are quite likely to have a disastrous influence. This is not the fault of parents, who are merely victims of the emotional frustration and conflicts of their own unhappy childhood.

Many parents do not love their children and are either indifferent or hostile to them. A child who meets this kind of rejection will try to find sustitute satisfactions for the love he doesn’t get. On the other hand, many parents love their children in a kind of overwhelming way and do everything for them. In this case children can’t develop their own capabilities; they feel weak and helpless. In either case, whether they are badly neglected or overindulged, children will develop a great deal of hostility toward their parents. Since this is not a socially acceptable attitude – you’re supposed to love your parents – they will also feel guilty about their hostility. All this underlies the disturbed behavior of teenagers and explains why many of their crimes seem irrational.

They may attack a stranger as a substitute for the parent toward whom they feel so much repressed hostility. They may commit crimes in order to get punished because punishment relieves them of their intense feeling of guilt.

We live in a highly competitive society founded upon the institution of private property. Marriage laws and family relationships reflect this basic concept of private ownership and a tremendous social pressure is transmitted through the parents. At an early age a child feels that he has to achieve something, to acquire status and to own a lot of things. Parents naturally urge children to go after the things they themselves wanted and frequently did not get. In this age of feverish advertising it’s not difficult to figure out what these things are – cars, homes, television sets, fur coats, deep freezers and thousands of other items enticingly offered on the pages of every magazine and newspaper.

Unfortunately a great many young people have no realistic prospect of getting all this stuff. In face of the continuous pressure to acquire some of these products of American culture, they may look for shortcuts – shortcuts suggested by the activities of adults whom they are watching closely. Some 225,000 cars were stolen last year – 125,000 by youngsters under 18.

In school, too, there is insistent emphasis on competition and achievement. Children who have difficulty fitting into the set patterns of our schools are likely to play truant and look for more interesting activities and associates. Habitual truancy is considered an early symptom of delinquency. It is certainly the first consistent protest against overcrowded schools, inadequate teachers and the rigid conformity of our educational methods.

The drop-out rate is another indication of how youngsters feel about the schools – more than 50% do not complete four years of high school.

Marshall B. Clinard in Secondary Community Influences and Juvenile Delinquency says:

“In reality schools are places where juveniles, during a process of several hours a day, are routinized, bored, crushed in their individuality and thrown into needless competition with others rather than aided in the development of co-operation.”

Our schools present what educators have described as “packaged” courses which fulfill a middle-class ideal of white-collar academic achievement. Vocational schools, which were supposed to counteract this to some extent, have become a dumping ground for students who are considered mentally incapable of such academic accomplishments. Teachers generally consider an assignment to a vocational high school the equivalent of exile in Siberia.

Blackboard Jungle by Evan Hunter, who was formerly a teacher in a vocational high school in the Bronx, gives a vivid picture of these schools. Hunter can’t successfully conceal his contempt and hatred for the boys in his class. He infers that among them there may be a few that can be salvaged, but the vast majority are a bunch of anti-social morons who can’t absorb any education and obviously don’t need any.

One fact emerges from his book with striking clarity. What goes on in these classrooms is not just boyish mischief. It’s war – a war waged against all authority with sustained intensity and bitterness. But Hunter never asks why these youngsters are at war with authority. Presumably, from his account, because they have a low IQ. It doesn’t occur to him that their hostility to authority may be based on the kind of personal experiences they have had with various types of authority.

Our schools are notoriously overcrowded, children attend in double shifts and sit two at a desk. Buildings are so old and in such a bad state of repair that they are dangerous.

Low pay for teachers forces competent men and women into other jobs where they can make a living thus creating a shortage of teachers. All this reflects the low value placed on education by our society.

Higher education used to be different. Colleges and universities in the thirties were not so rigidly conformist and there was plenty of discussion on the campus, frequently led by “red” professors. Radical students engaged in political demonstrations and anti-war strikes.

Today both students and teachers have learned to toe the line. Dissenting professors lose their jobs. Students today are faced with the Smith Act, the McCarran Act, the threat of loyalty investigations and the blacklist prepared by the Attorney General. If they’re labelled “subversive,” their prospects for employment or a professional career are rather dim.

It’s not surprising that educators complain that young people today seem to have no militant beliefs; they don’t speak out for anything. Rabbi I. Newman, in a sermon on the topic, said:

“The campaign to enforce conformity among persons of independent thought is likely to create a generation of supine, spineless young men and women.”

The N.Y. Times comments:

“A subtle, creeping paralysis of freedom of thought and speech is attacking the college campuses – limiting both students and faculty in the area traditionally reserved for the free exploration of knowledge and truth.”

The Troublemakers, a bold and remarkably honest play (which closed after about seven weeks in a small theater off Broadway) told the story of a non-conformist on the campus, a political rebel, who was killed by a group of classmates on a weekend drunk. They picked on him because he was different, un-American, didn’t have the same ideas as the rest of them. Most of the play dealt with the efforts of the whole town, including faculty and police, to cover up. They refused to admit this brutal incident could occur on a respectable university town. This play was based on the actual killing of a student at a New England university two years ago.

Another sad example of this trend is the incident in Rhode Island where Boy Scouts planned to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday by burning books at a revolutionary shrine at Fort Butts. They invited everyone in town and the admission price was an objectionable book. If you couldn’t make it in person, they’d pick up your books and burn them for you. There was considerable protest; so at the last minute they called it off and the books collected were sold as waste paper.

I have attempted so far to outline the social factors that contribute to delinquency – war and the threat of war, the misery of growing up in a slum environment, racial and religious antagonisms inherent in our culture, the tremendous pressure for conformity on the part of parents, schools and other agencies who insist on adjustment to the status quo as the only normal way of life, the whole pattern of competitive achievement and acquisition of property in capitalist economy – all of these add up to a society that is delinquent, a society that is responsible for the anti-social behavior of our desperately troubled youth.

Problem of Sex

There is one other vitally important question in which society plays a repressive and hypocritical role. Most of the popular articles and books on teenage problems don’t say too much about sex. Either they believe that this is an age of sex freedom and it’s not much of a problem these days, or they think that such problems arise later when young people reach their early twenties. No adolescent, subjected to the highly erotic stimulation of our mass entertainment media, could avoid an early consciousness of sex. This comes naturally, of course – movies, television and comic books merely provide a hopped-up version of sex and an insistent pressure which resemibles the appeal of advertisers to buy unobtainable merchandise. An adolescent’s normal interest in sex is continuously aggravated while no satisfactory outlet is offered.

A teenager, as he reaches physical maturity, is not in position to marry; and actfvities regarded as normal for adults are “a serious crime at the teenage level. Recently two youngsters of 15 and 16 wanted to get married but couldn’t get their parents’ consent. They ran away from home, were discovered in an upstate hotel and arrested as juvenile delinquents. This could mean a sentence of several years in a reform school. Kinsey pointed out that most of the famous lovers of history were teenagers who would wind up behind bars in modern America.

As I said earlier, what young people want most is to grow up. Yet for a great many years they have an indeterminate age status; the teenager is no longer a child but he is not an adult. He is held responsible for his actions, he can be drafted into the army or sent to the electric chair, but he can’t vote and is not entitled to most of the privileges of adults.

So far I’ve discussed teenagers in the United States because I got most of my data from American publications. But there as some evidence that other countries have similar problems although in typical American style, our problem seems bigger. There has been a rise in violent crime in England since World War II and recently Marlon Brando’s film The Wild One was banned there because it might have an undesirable effect on young hoodlums. A socialist paper from Ceylon reports a rise in violent crime among Ceylonese youth and mentions that the United States has similar difficulties. Reports from Australia on the activities of young people sound very much like some of the more sensational news stories here.

The Soviet Union may have a delinquency problem as serious as that jn America. It’s difficult, of course, to get facts about Russia. TV producers, defending themselves before a congressional committee on charges that their programs were causing delinquency, mentioned the absence of TV sets in Russia where the delinquency problem is as great as ours. The N.Y. Post carried a story on the “Butterfly Boys” who are plaguing Russian cops. Apparently the equivalent of our zoot-suiters, they wear long “Tarzan” haircuts and brilliantly colored clothes.

In six months, 60 stories appeared in the Russian press on youthful hooliganism and drinking. Some reported crimes of serious violence. An 11-year-old schoolboy knifed a teacher to death; an Odessa school boy was beaten to death by other boys; four boys 15 to 17 engaged in a series of armed robberies. “Soviet courts,” says the article, “are dealing severely with the offenders.”

A most depressing report on German youth was made by Melvin J. Lasky in the N.Y. Times. Like American youth they want to buy cars and refrigerators. They want to get ahead. They want to live “like in the movies” and ride noisy motorcycles through town – maybe The Wild One wasn’t banned there.

“The new youth,” says this writer, “reads gossipy newspapers and picture magazines, has started working at what seems a rather good job and has precious little feeling that the times are out of joint.”

Visiting American generals and senators can’t conceal their sympathy for a people “so much like ours” and a German economist commented happily that “Germany will get the best workers it has ever had!” What is the outstanding characteristic that arouses the admiration of generals and politicians and which will make the Germans such good workers?

They are “adjustable” according to one observer. “Bourgeoisified” says another. They have achieved what Lasky calls a new “individualism” which is summed up in the slogan: “What’s in it for me?”

“Young workers,” he says, “no longer want to rise with the ranks but from the ranks. As for politics, they’re apathetic and even students are merely concerned with their own private professional careers. A German writer sums it up by saying: ‘They are the oldest young generation ever.’”

This may sound familiar. Time magazine’s report on The Silent Generation, written three years earlier, said that American youth were the “oldest young generation in the world.” I don’t believe one writer was plagiarizing the other; I think they were observing a similar phenomenon. German youth, too, seem to be held in the grip of a deadening conformity and self-centered egoism.

What Can Be Done?

With this general picture of what’s happening to youth and why, let’s consider what’s being done about it, how so-called delinquency is being cured. It would be more accurate to say, what methods are used in handling cases, because the measures employed are in most cases not a cure.

Eisenhower acknowledged the importance of the question by allocating $3,000,000 in his latest budget toward prevention of delinquency. This may not seem like much compared with the military budget of $34,000,000,000. However it’s quite a bit more than last year’s budget of $75,000.

Of the 1,000,000 children who are arrested each year, approximately 400,000 actually get to court. Others are referred to social service agencies and psychiatric clinics or dismissed with a warning to parents and child. There are 200 children’s courts in the United States concentrated in eight states. In the other 40 states, juvenile cases are lumped in with other judicial proceedings. The courts in the eight fortunate states, with rare exceptions, aren’t working too well. To quote Children in Court, a pamphlet published by the Public Affairs Committee, these courts “serve to reinforce the feeling the children already have of the world’s hostility or indifference.”

What’s wrong? According to this pamphlet, just about everything. First, no money; courts don’t have adequate appropriations with which to work.

Even if they had the money, many of the judges have been appointed in payment of political debts and are not equipped to handle delinquent children.

If we did have good judges, they couldn’t accomplish much. The court depends on its probation staff and half the counties in the US don’t have probation staffs. When they do, it is usually “overworked, inadequately trained, underpaid” and capable of giving only “the most casual, routine, cursory service.”

That’s not all. If there were good probation services, the courts would still have a tough time because many of the children must be “sent away” and there aren’t enough “places” to send them. The institutions that do exist “aren’t all the right kind.” That’s certainly an understatement! Schools intended for 200 children have as many as 400 and when the population gets this big, says the pamphlet, “it is almost impossible for a training school staff to avoid using mass regimentation methods and arbitrary discipline.” It’s also doubtful that anyone tries to avoid it. Everyone familiar with so-called training schools knows that the children get trained for just one thing – a life of adult crime.

The Children’s Court in New York City does have a probation staff. The probation officers are able to see most children from five to 20 minutes a month, or one to four hours a year. They never get around to seeing some of them.

Some of the judges “order” teenagers to promise better behavior or to read selected books. Some go in for lectures to parents and children on the desirability of good conduct. One judge doesn’t believe in psychiatry and never reads the reports ol psychiatric examinations. Another reads these reports but pays no attention to them, preferring his own “common sense.” Some insist on regular church attendance and writing the Ten Commandments a given number of times. So far none of these measures has checked delinquency.

The most miserable aspect of this situation is what happens to the young people who are held in detention. About 100,000 are put in adult prisons while waiting for their cases to come to court. This is because there are no juvenile detention homes available. Frequently there is no segregation and youngsters are locked up with hardened criminals. Where there are juvenile detention homes or training schools things are not much better. In Juvenile Officer Capt. Harold L. Stallings of the Los Angeles police despribes them frankly. He says in a chapter on The Detention Horror:

“Conditions in Los Angeles county are no worse than in other parts of the country but that isn’t saying much forthe detention situation over the land is a disgrace. In our detention places for juveniles we inbreed the very characteristics we spend millions to outbreed. As Vice-President of the National Jail Association I visited city and county detention jails over the country. Physical conveniences are almost non-existent. Cells are dank and stinking. Personnel is uninspired and disinterested. There is nothing for inmates to do, no work and no play.”

He tells how boys arrested for manor offenses like petty thievery, thrown in with experienced criminals, are subjected to sadistic homosexual attacks, frequently with the cooperation of the guards.

Some years ago I had a waitress job in a small town in Massachusetts and I remember boys from the local training school at work mowing the lawn and doing other odd jobs probably described as vocational rehabilitation. Recently about a dozen officials of this institution – teachers, they’re called – were arrested and charged with forcing homosexual relationships on the 13- and 14-year-old inmates. There were a total of 106 charges against them, they were convicted and got nine months.

This seems like a moderate sentence compared with, let’s say, two or three years that a boy of 14 may serve because he had a normal sex relationship with the girl next door. As I pointed out, juveniles are expected to behave a lot better than adults.

Milton Barren, in The Juvenile in Delinquent Society describes some of the punishments inflicted in these institutions.

“Duck-walking. The offending child must grasp his ankles and waddle about like a duck.

“The squats. This is deep knee-beading for a specified period or number of times. Some children are sentenced to 5,000 squats, worked out in intermittent sessions to avoid collapse.

“Rice-polishing. Boys crawl on their knees across a floor strewn with rice grains until bleeding starts and suffering is intense ‘enough to satisfy the disciplinarian that ‘justice’ has been done.

“Burlap party. Offenders are made to push piles of burlap bags across a floor flooded with water. When the bags are soaked through, they have to wring them and then resume sopping up water with burlap until the floors are dry.

“Runaway pills. Captured runaways are dosed with laxatives to ‘help them run.’

“A ‘game’ played in some institutions is called ‘flying home.’ The idea is to administer a kick or paddle-whack to a boy’s backside so sharply and expertly as to shock his nervous system and liberally lift him off the floor. Failure or success for the disciplinarian is measured by the height reached by the offending child and the distance he travels.”

The Get-Tough “Solution”

In the Women’s House of Detention in New York City, described by Corrections Commissioner Anna Kross as “indecent” and a “hellhole,” girls are usually released right before lunch with a lecture and 25 cents. In most cases they are arrested for prostitution and it’s not difficult to figure out why they go back to it – fast.

In the last couple of years many judges, police officials, capitalist politicians and similar characters have come out for a “get tough” policy. In view of what I quoted above, it hardly seems possible, but they believe that juvenile offenders have been coddled and advocate really throwing the book at them.

Judges in open court have referred to teenagers on trial as hoodlums and punks. Judge Leibowitz of Brooklyn, sentencing a couple of teenage murderers – they got 20 years to life – asked for a new approach in dealing with the “vicious, depraved, heartless, cruel and cunning type of young criminal. What was good and proper 25 years ago when kids used to steal bananas off pushcarts and tear down fences for election bonfires is as out of date as the horse and buggy. The young criminal of today is sadistic, he has to see the blood of his victim flow. He is more cunning and defiant than the old-type adult burglar or other type of criminal.” The depraved boys whom he condemned were 17 and 18 years old.

Another Brooklyn judge held 31 boys on $5,000 bail each on charges of unlawful assembly. The police had a tip they were going to start a street fight but since it had not yet started when they arrived there were no real charges against the youths, The judge had to let them go when the case came to court – with a speech. He said there were too many vacuum cleaners in modern homes and not enough brooms because parents ought to go back to using the broomstick on wayward children. Furthermore, he thought patrolmen on the beat should use their clubs.

He’ll be happy to learn that cops are not only using their clubs but their guns, too. In recent months several teenagers were killed by conscientious policemen who thought they were up to no good. A mother wrote to the N.Y. Post:

“I have two teernage boys and every time they go out my husband and I are in a cold sweat for fear some innocent boyish gesture might be misinterpreted and arouse suspicion, and some trigger-happy rookie might empty his revolver in them.”

Various laws have been proposed, and in some cities have been enacted, to back up the get-tough policy. A teenage curfew which does not permit young people under 18 on the streets after 10 p.m. is in effect in Chicago, Philadelphia and a number of other cities and is being discussed in New York. This means a young fellow or girl of 17 can’t go to a movie after work.

Another proposal would make parents pay the cost of teenage vandalism. If a youth didn’t care much for his parents, this would be a perfect weapon. One police-state measure under consideration is the fingerprinting of all school children. Public whipping has also been suggested.

George Sokolsky, the Hearst columnist, sees a close relationship between the rise of delinquency, which indicates a lowering of moral standards, and the “moral weakness” of many US soldiers in the Korean war. Their weakness consisted of not wanting to fight because they had no positive goal. He advocates a revival of religion and nationalism and as a first step suggests singing the national anthem at all public gatherings, baseball games, concerts, etc.

Liberals and social service workers, who don’t go for either police clubbings or the national anthem as a solution, advocate various measures to adjust young people to the community; but don’t explai’n how they can make a normal adjustment to this abnormal society and its bitter alternative of joblessness or war.

Whatever its shortcomings, the work of social service agencies and psychiatric clinics is the only attempt being made to prevent or to cure the delinquent behavior of disturbed children and adolescents. There is an acute shortage of these facilities. In the entire United States, there are less than ten psychiatric clinics attached to juvenile courts. The psychiatric care in detention houses and reform schools was described cynically by a prison official:

“The three minute wonders – those institutionial psychiatrists who give the kids quick check-ups like they were looking for measles.”

Clinics and other agencies are so overcrowded with cases that they can’t possibly handle them properly. Like the Children’s Courts, they are hampered by hopelessly inadequate funds. They are understaffed and the personnel they do have is underpaid. The result is that they only get to the tough cases which have already reached an emergency stage and are rarely able to do preventive work in the early phases of emotional illness when it might be of some real help. Last year the Bureau of Child Guidance in New York City processed 13,000 cases. They estimate that there were 200,000 other children who needed help.

One curious development is that the clinics and institutions which were originally set up to deal with delinquents are becoming more and more interested in the neuroses of middle-class and upper-class youngsters. Dr. Donald Bloch of the US Public Health Service says:

“They find that such cases are very productive in therapy. They can really get somewhere With them, so they are giving up treating delinquents.”

Clifford Shaw of the Institute of Juvenile Research in Illinois confirms this. “The delinquent,” he reports, “is very largely outside the whole range of social agencies.”

But at best, these agencies would only be able to take care of casualties. They could do nothing to solve the fundamental problems and conflicts which drive youth to violent rebellion. What these youngsters want is a society that appreciates them and their problems and needs instead of publicly branding them as hoodlums, punks, and teenage beasts. They want a useful place in the world; they want to make plans; they want a future.

The Real Choice

All they see ahead is the threat of atomic destruction and violent death. It’s because they feel that they have no choice and there’s no way out that they wind uip in the blind alley of narcotic addiction or tear down the highway with police bringing up the rear.

There is a choice. These young people, who have totally rejected the false ideals of today; do not yet realize that what they have rejected are the ideals of modern capitalist society. They have not learned to fight against capitalism. When they do – when they see the possibility of a society of abundance and peace, the society of socialism – they will find the positive goal that was so conspicuously flacking on the battlefields of Korea.

In the last session of Congress, a proposed constitutional amendment that would have lowered the voting age to 18 was hastily buried by the US Senate. In a N.Y. Times panel discussion, Dr. T.V. Smith, a professor of politics and philosophy, revealed with surprising frankness why the politicians don’t welcome 18-year-old voters. According to the Times:

“He warned that young people were prone to carry idealism into politics and expect too much from government officials. ‘Sportsmanship and magnanimity,’ he said, ‘were a part of party politics and despite campaign charges, mudslinging and all the other fury of campaigns, the winning and losing candidates resumed their friendsliip after the votes were tallied. Youth would not know this and in its idealism might spoil this facet of politics.’”

Young people are not supposed to have any voice in shaping the policies that may mean life or death for them. A 15-year-old boy who attempted to attend a talk by Judge Leibowitz on juvenile delinquency was told that he was “too young.” The boy of 18 who is about to be drafted is “too young” to decide the issues of war and peace. Adolescence, according to popular journalists, is a carefree, irresponsible time of life.

I’d like to say to any teenager,

“You have a right to share in the decisions that will determine what kind of world you are going to live in. If no one offers you this right, take it anyway. Make yourself heard. It’s up to you to challenge the society that stunts your development, deprives you of hope for the future and threatens you with annihilation in a third world war without giving you the elementary right to decide whether or not you want to fight. The socialist movement is not afraid of the idealism and honesty of youth. We want young people to take part in the struggle against the misery and violence of the capitalist world.”

I know it’s difficult to argue against the cynical, tough-guy attitude of so many young people who want to conceal their feelings of helplessness and despair. But let any youth who feels that way listen to the youth of a different generation who faced similar problems and found their way to a satisfying answer. Here is what one of them, James P. Cannon, says in his pamphlet, The Road to Socialism:

“Don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that anything contrary to the rules and ethics of capitalism is utopian or visionary or absurd. What’s absurd is to think this madhouse is permanent and for all time.”

When millions of young people in America begin to see it that way too, they will no longer accept the “safety” of a paralyzing conformism or look for an escape in narcotics and violent crime. When they see the possibility of the new world that’s within their grasp, they will find the program and take the decisive action to make that new world their own.

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Last updated on: 2 April 2009