x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Start early to stop juvenile violence

A new social-work approach to keeping juvenile offenders from turning into hardened criminals is well worth a try.

Some call it "testosterone poisoning", while others just say "boys will be boys". However it is expressed, every society has the same phenomenon: young men are more likely than young women to get into trouble with the law.

From speeding to petty theft to gang activity and more serious crimes, many a male teenager has found himself in a brush with the law; many a parent has made an anxious trip to the police station, and driven a son home in angry silence or heated argument.

The challenge, in such cases, is often to keep juvenile delinquents from drifting into deeper trouble.

Now Dubai's Community Development Authority is launching a new effort: getting in touch with youths the moment they come into a police station. Some young people picked up by police are only cautioned and released, and at that point social work may be more useful than police work, CDA official Bushra Qayed told The National this week.

To be sure, this approach is full of challenges. Even the legendary patience of social workers can be strained by the truculence that is almost inevitable in a teenager just lectured by police and about to be lectured, it is to be hoped, by a parent.

But it is well worth the effort. In many cases, bad behaviour has roots in a young man's problems at home, school or work, which can be addressed and at least partly solved by the skilled attention of a trained social worker, with a mental health expert on call if needed.

We must acknowledge that at this age, as at any other, males have no monopoly on misbehaviour. Facilities for young women identified as being on the brink of a criminal career are also essential. But statistics and experience show that this is mainly a male issue.

The current justice system does distinguish between adult and juvenile offenders; facilities for youth offenders are usually described as more like hostels than jails. However, putting misbehaving teenagers together, even in relatively comfortable accommodation, will not normally improve the demeanour or deportment of any of them.

This new approach will require close coordination between police and social workers, which may take a bit of retraining, as the two groups can have very different philosophies. But the persistence of the problem reveals a need for new approaches; this one deserves a try.