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Dropping Out

Delinquency and Drift

by David Matza
Wiley, 199 pp., $4.50

Street-Corner Research

by Ralph Schwitzgebel
Harvard, 163 pp., $3.95

Before reading these two books I would willingly have declared that juvenile delinquency had been exhausted as a topic; that nothing more of value could be written about it, and that, certainly, no reputable publisher could publish a worse book about it than already existed. Mr. Matza proves me wrong on the first two counts, and Mr. Schwitzgebel on the last. Delinquency and Drift is elegant and light, precise and penetrating, wholly original, and so unsentimental that it can treat of misery to some coherent purpose, avoiding both disguise and despair. It is subtle, too intricate to summarize, yet very clear.

Professor Matza examines, and ultimately dismisses as too deterministic the conventional psychological and sociological explanations of juvenile delinquency. Neither the young delinquents nor the relationships they establish among themselves—the so-called “delinquent subculture”—are sufficiently unusual or abnormal to justify explaining delinquency as an expression of particular psychological or social pathology. Delinquent boys are likely to be somewhat less neurotic than their most law-abiding peers, especially in an ill-behaved community. No juvenile delinquent is more than sporadically so; the rest of the time he carries on quite ordinary social intercourse, often pleasantly enough. Matza rejects the possibility of a “delinquent subculture” on the grounds that delinquents share the same norms as their better-behaved neighbors. When they “sound” one another or put anybody down, they condemn them on the same grounds most of us would: meanness, irresponsibility, cowardice—though each excuses his own behavior as partially extenuated by his peculiar circumstances.

Since, as he maintains, there is nothing very special about juvenile delinquents except the social role in which they find themselves, Matza is obliged to explain early in his discourse why they have come to be treated as a special phenomenon. The necessity to make man’s social behavior a proper subject for scientific inquiry, and thus to legitimate the social sciences, has, he maintains, led social scientists to assume that free will is a negligible factor in human behavior. All that we need in order to understand ourselves and our social institutions is an adequate system of empirical generalizations, and enough precise data to fit into them. All contemporary sociologists would grant that we can’t do this yet; our theories are too scrappy and not yet sufficiently architectonic, as Robert Merton said fifteen years ago in Social Theory and Social Structure. But, in principle, delinquent boys, like all of us, are as completely governed by circumstances as molecules. Matza dryly disagrees with this.

Even if delinquency could be predicted, and given the current state of knowledge, it obviously cannot, still we would desire more…where many factors matter rather than few, and no one can pretend to know how many is too many, this may be a signal that our model is not a truthful simplifying of reality but instead a complicated falsification…A science of man may differ fundamentally from natural science in the simplicity with which it may be rendered. But so too, may it differ in the extent to which its object of inquiry, man, is constrained. Given the current state of knowledge we are free to choose. [My italics]

This thesis leads Matza to his fundamental characterization of the juvenile delinquent:

The delinquent transiently exists in a limbo between convention and crime, responding in turn to the demands of each, flirting now with one, now with the other, but postponing commitment, evading decision. Thus he drifts between criminal and conventional action.

To be loosened from control, conventional or delinquent, is not equivalent to freedom, and, thus, I do not propose a free or calculating actor as an alternative to constraint. Freedom…is a sense of command over one’s destiny, a capacity to formulate programs or projects, a feeling of being an agent in one’s own behalf Freedom is self-control. If so, the delinquent has clearly not achieved that state…Those who have been granted the potentiality but who lack the position, capacity, or inclination to become agents in their own behalf, I call drifters, and it is in this category that I place the juvenile delinquent….

The main undertaking of Delinquency and Drift is the formulation of a general theory of delinquency, the purpose of which is to define the conditions that make delinquency possible. Professor Matza maintains that the most important of these conditions involve the relationship of the drifting adolescent to the legal system. This relationship is unique, and contrasts sharply with that of the adult to the surrounding forces of law and order. The legal situation of the juvenile is in fact distinct, because of the peculiar characteristics of the juvenile courts and of the law they administer. These differences, then, have consequences that delinquents use to justify their drift into actions that bring them before the juvenile authorities.

Delinquents, Matza finds, have a crude and distorted but not unreasonable sense of some of the traditions of the law. But this is just what gets them into the most serious trouble, not only because they kid themselves about what the law really means, but—and more importantly—because the ordinary code of criminal justice does not apply to them and they cannot claim its safeguards. This, in itself, is a sufficient and perfectly rational basis for a pervasive sense of injustice, which is exacerbated by the delinquent’s need to rationalize his own miscreant behavior.

The offenses most characteristic of juvenile delinquency are not even illegal if committed by adults. Adults are legally incompetent to commit truancy, or to drink or drive while under age; and while many of my adult acquaintances are clearly and manifestly incorrigible no legal remedy exists by which their conduct may be subject to control unless they commit some specific indictable offense. There does, then, in fact exist a clear double standard; and delinquents can justify many of their violations of the law on the grounds that the law is inequable, as it is. These offenses, by definition, are precisely those most likely to be a part of a drifting boy’s image of adulthood and machismo. Matza does not go so far as to suggest, as I definitely would, that the double standard should be abolished. But, in any case, the youngsters themselves do not accept this inequity; they use what they see as the law’s bias against them to justify contempt even for those statutes that apply equally to adults.

But more formidable consequences follow. The very existence of special constraints on juveniles creates an enormous, repulsive, and repressive apparatus of petty constraint, which no rational adult would put up with for five minutes. It is not illegal for adolescents to smoke, though some states forbid them to buy cigarettes. But almost all high schools forbid smoking and some assume the right to punish students for smoking off campus. Since truancy is a legal offense, smoking then automatically becomes one. So does any idiosyncracy of dress or hair style. The New York Times of December 16, 1964, reports that the Connecticut State Education Commissioner has ordered the parents of a neat (there is a photograph) youth two months short of sixteen to have the boy’s hair cut “in the back and on the sides” or face prosecution under the state’s compulsory attendance law, since the boy has been suspended until he gets a regulation haircut. There is certainly no law governing hair styles in the state of Connecticut; but so far as “teenagers” are concerned, there might as well be.

More fundamental difficulties arise from the nature of the juvenile court itself. Few people—even few social workers—seem to realize that a juvenile court is a civil, not a criminal court; and provides none of the safeguards of criminal due process. It is not even an open court; its proceedings are secret. It proceeds on the specific assumption that the youth before it is not a “defendant” but a ward of the state; and that the function of the court is to make the most helpful disposition possible of his case, given the resources available. These therapeutic resources include imprisonment and parole—itself, of course, a sharp restraint on freedom to move, or even to apply for a driver’s license—and the services of numerous but overworked semi-professional personnel whom the youth cannot dismiss but whom he certainly recognizes as members of what Matza calls marginal professions, and not very respectable models of legitimate achievement.

Even this might be supportable, if its constrictive but philanthropic ethos were observed in practice. But it isn’t. The juvenile court “referee” is supposed to be helpful, and his “determination”—it isn’t a sentence, of course—is to be custom-tailored to the needs of the individual. These are, indeed, considered—to the extent that the personnel of the court have the necessary information, resources, and insight. But so are the pressures of the community to get young punks off the street and make it safe. Most decisive of all is usually the simple question of whether there is any place—reform school or a youth home—to put the victim.

One delinquent put it this way:

In the children’s court I had found, there are two kinds of judges: bleeding hearts and swords of the Lord. Bleeding hearts called me son and wept over me; swords of the Lord shouted I ought to be locked up in a zoo. But I thought there was no real difference between the two. If there was room for you in the slammers, either kind sent you up. Usually there was no room. That is why I got off with a warning the twelve times before this.

I cannot in this space consider the fine points of Matza’s analysis of our legal system, and the tragi-comic caricature of it that operates in the minds of youths who drift into delinquency; their extra-common-law view of tort, and of lex talionis, for example. But it seems necessary at this point to consider the implications of Matza’s position.

Matza’s work supports, I believe, Howard S. Becker’s position that many forms of deviance, whether juvenile delinquency, narcotics addiction, or Southeast Asia, are problems primarily because we have chosen to make them problems. This is not, of course, to say that each of these areas is not characterized by objectively threatening social conditions; but that these conditions have been reified into major social problems because society has defined them as such, and set up costly, self-perpetuating institutions to deal with them. If there were no juvenile courts, social workers, and special juvenile codes there would be no juvenile delinquency and probably less juvenile crime. Persons less than eighteen or twenty-one years of age would continue, of course, to commit criminal offenses, along with their elders. But the very fact that they would then have to defend themselves in an ordinary court, and would have the opportunity to do so, would of itself tend both to reduce the youngster’s sense of pervasive injustice and to increase his actual social responsibility. Nobody—certainly no youngster, for youngsters cannot well bear manipulation and hypocrisy—ought to be made to regard an agency that may imprison him as friendly and helpful. The state is the enemy, not the friend, of those accused of offenses, for our legal system is basically an adversary system. When it prosecutes, let it do so openly and forthrightly, under due process.

Mr. Schwitzgebel’s book is also concerned with delinquency. The project he reports in Streetcorner Research has received a great deal of national publicity. In his preface, Mr. Schwitzgebel acknowledges the support of five Funds and Foundations, including Hayden and Ford. His undertaking is therefore worth attention as a social phenomenon, quite apart from any value it may have as a research investigation. All that I had heard specifically about it was that the research-team hired delinquent youths off the street for a small sum to meet regularly and recount their experiences, and that being treated as colleagues to this degree had in itself proved beneficial to the boys. This seemed to me a very promising approach, and I was sympathetically eager to learn more about what was being done.

Unfortunately, however, Mr. Schwitzgebel’s book is a really disgusting work, capricious in the original sense of the word; it might have been written by trolls and goblins. What makes it worth considering at all is the fact that the moral defects it embodies are hardly peculiar; they are the characteristic defects of our national character itself. Secretary McNamara, crowing his one friendly phrase of Vietnamese to an audience in Saigon on CBS-TV last January 11th, simply expresses a purer essence of the spirit that suffuses this book.

What, specifically, are these defects? The most pervasive is identity-failure. Mr. Schwitzgebel and his colleagues do not scruple to define either their job or themselves. They try to match the language and views of their delinquent subjects; and they encourage the delinquents to imitate them. Consistently enough, they also shuck off their own professional roles in order to assume others that they fancy but that they have never been trained to fill. One of Mr. Schwitzgebel’s colleagues, a priest, limiting his attention to Roman Catholic “boys” over twenty-one, plies his subjects with beer and encourages them to bait him with embarrassing questions and insults. “The opportunity for just this ‘sport’ alone,” Schwitzgebel notes proudly, “could have been enough to guarantee attendance.” When one of the “boys” himself becomes abashed at his own behavior, the priest exclaims—“with anger,” the book notes—“I’m not a priest here!”; though “When officially visiting the homes of the boys, the experimenter operated within the role of priest.” As I understand the nature of the Sacrament, the effects of ordination cannot be intermittent though they may, of course, be uncertain.

The interviewing done by the graduate student in education can best be described as “philosophical discussion…”

Within this philosophical perspective, the delinquent was not viewed as sick, disobedient, or the product of a delinquent subculture (although none of these possibilities were [sic] completely eliminated). The perspective was rather that certain cases of delinquency result primarily from a philosophical position which is in conflict with the legally sanctioned structures of society.

Interviewer C, a Harvard undergraduate junior who had no previous experience in interviewing, was allowed to interview in any manner he wished. The interviews with interviewer C could be described as friendly discussions or “bull sessions” centering around girls, crime, sports, religion, and motorcycles.

The interview actually quoted is devoted entirely to swapping stories about “queers.” On the other hand, when they get away from the Center, the boys sometimes find it amusing to psychoanalyze their peers in what sounds like a travesty of the language of the profession but may be a pretty faithful duplication of what they picked up from their friends at Harvard.

The only way these antics could possibly have done these youths anything but harm would have been by conveying to them an authentic sense of interest and acceptance; and this, apparently, was Schwitzgebel’s intent. He repeatedly emphasizes that what they were doing was designed to provide these youths with an experience of honest treatment. In point of fact the project was dishonest from the start. The boys were told at the outset: “We are interested in studying and understanding teenagers, especially those who have been in trouble. We are not trying to ‘straighten out’ anybody.” But what the project was actually seeking were “scientific strategies” with “dramatic impact” for eliminating delinquent behavior. As for the authenticity of the friendship offered:

Much of the experimenters’ concern about termination centered around the fear that the friendships following termination would continue indefinitely. Obviously, the experimenters would not have time for all these friends nor would these friendships be at the level most meaningful for the experimenters. Being a friend to these boys could become a fulltime job.

It is clear now that the friendships between the experimenters and subjects were not generally enduring. At the present time, even an occasional contact by phone or letter or accidental meeting holds true for less than one-quarter of the subjects. Friendships “faded” in the typical manner.

From my own professional viewpoint, the final defect in this work that I wish to consider may be the most serious: its arrogant misuse of the concept—so finely drawn in Professor Matza’s argument—of a scientific experiment. “Experimental” means simply a gimmick that is just now being tried; “scientific” means that the gimmick is technical. Thus, as an example of a scientific experiment in social therapy, Schwitzgebel discusses the use of chemically-induced nausea to discourage forgery and homosexuality, as it has been used to discourage alcoholism. Even on the basis of this one book I am quite prepared to concede that this may be a technique for which Mr. Schwitzgebel has a special flair. But this is not enough to make him a scientist. In the text of Street-corner Research he presents only anecdotal material about his project, much of it apparently selected because it is striking or grotesque. In the Appendices he has a few statistical tables describing his thirty-boy sample and one, rather ambitiously headed “Results of Streetcorner Research Project in Cambridge” giving the “Months of full-time work,” “Number of arrests,” “Number of court appearances,” “Months sentenced” (cumulative), “Months in reform school,” and “Months in adult prison” for each youth. The “results” are inconclusive; but the subjects are young, and have most of their future before them. So does Mr. Schwitzgebel. The chapter called “A Look Toward the Future” concludes:

A vision of the future must lie before those who would seek to transform the delinquent into a nobler part of humanity. With the aid of science and philosophy, the future shape of humanity is a goal toward which we strive and whose image and laws are not yet clear. There is still the possibility for a kindly future in which people of violence and cruelty may seem as outmoded as the witches of a previous age. We, therefore, look forward to the time when men shall not only do good, but shall do good measurably well.

The CIA would surely agree.

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