Commentary Magazine


Entangling Juvenile Delinquency

Late in January, the Commissioner of the New York City Youth Service called an extraordinary press conference to announce a development of “tremendous significance for the juvenile delinquency prediction effort.” Flanked by the Deputy Mayor, Paul T. O’Keefe (Mayor Wagner, ill, was absent), and the Harvard criminologists, Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck, Commissioner Ralph Whelan praised the effectiveness of the Gluecks’ “Social Factors Prediction Scale.” This scale, he reported, had successfully predicted the delinquency or non-delinquency of 86.5 per cent of a group of boys in the Bronx. The Commissioner proposed that the Gluecks’ scale be broadly applied to selected schools throughout the city: its extensive use, he said, would allow spotting “at an early age, those youngsters upon whom it would be necessary to concentrate the city’s preventative resources.”

Unfortunately, the claims made for this Youth Board study are, if not deliberately dishonest, at least as systematically misleading as the advertising that accompanies the inauguration of a new filter cigarette. More important, this kind of study in addition poses two general problems: first, the inherent limitations of any study which tries to predict or explain a complex personal, social, and ideological problem like delinquency by a simple correlation of bad families and bad boys; and, second, the increasing ease with which social scientists who claim too much can “over-sell” their results to an uncritical public.

A glance at the research which inspired the Youth Board’s Delinquency Prediction Study gives some understanding of the latter’s limitations. In Boston in 1939, Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck began a ten-year investigation which systematically compared 500 delinquent boys with 500 non-delinquents; reported ten years ago in Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency, it is undoubtedly destined to remain the most massive research onslaught ever made on this problem. The non-delinquent boys were carefully selected so that both groups would contain the same proportions of any given national or ethnic background, the same levels of intelligence, and the same age ranges; further, both groups came from the same “unwholesome neighborhoods.” The Gluecks made more than a thousand comparisons between the two groups of white, lower-class, slum-area boys. They found statistically “significant” differences between the delinquents and non-delinquents in almost every area they studied: Rorschach (inkblot) ratings, home conditions, body type, family life, school behavior, personal characteristics, etc., etc.

The way the Gluecks chose their boys made it impossible for them to study how social class, race, national origin, area of residence, or type of community might affect juvenile delinquency, since both delinquent and non-delinquent groups were matched to be identical in these respects. With these factors (to which other studies attribute great causal importance) matched out of consideration, the Gluecks found the most marked differences between the two groups in three areas: Rorschach test ratings; psychiatrists’ judgments of personal characteristics; and—most important for the Youth Board study—five “social” factors: namely, overstrict or erratic paternal discipline, unsuitable maternal supervision, a hostile or indifferent attitude toward the boy by either parent, and an “unintegrated” family.

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The Gluecks’ “Social” Factors Prediction Scale involves giving each boy a score on each of these factors. Working from their Boston findings, the Gluecks predict a high probability of delinquency for boys with high total scores. On the other hand, a boy with a firm but kindly father, “suitable” maternal supervision, warm or overprotective parents, and a cohesive family gets a low score, and is assigned a low probability of delinquency.

The Gluecks’ five-factor scale in effect post-dicted delinquency in the Boston boys from whom it was developed: 84 per cent of the non-delinquents and 75 per cent of the delinquents were correctly identified by the scale, whereas guessing would give only 50 per cent correct. But post-diction is easier than prediction; Boston is not New York; and 1939 is not 1960. The Youth Board, with the help of the Ford Foundation (which chipped in more than $100,000) and the close cooperation of the Gluecks, decided to try out the scale as a predictive device in a New York slum.

In 1952, Youth Board workers made unannounced visits to the parents (usually only the mothers) of all the 224 boys entering the first grade in two Bronx schools. From these interviews, the five ratings involved in the Gluecks’ “prediction” scale were made, and each boy was assigned a high or low probability of delinquency on the basis of the Gluecks’ Boston findings. Follow-up has consisted of interviews with teachers and examination of Juvenile Aid Bureau and police files, from which the boys have been rated as currently “delinquent,” “pre-delinquent,” or “non-delinquent.” The 223 boys still being followed are now thirteen or fourteen; that is, they were in the seventh grade during last year’s follow-up.

The Delinquency Prediction Study has three more years to run before any final evaluation should be made. But since Commissioner Whelan, presumably with the approval of the onlooking Glueks, has chosen to suggest that their scale should be “applied broadly” to selected schools in the city, these incomplete returns must be examined for evidence which might support his enthusiasm.

What Commissioner Whelan’s statements and press release most clearly show, when compared to the actual results of the Delinquency Prediction Study, is how easy it is to mislead with statistics, strange definitions, and omissions of key information—all without giving the impression of actually lying.

Consider, for example, his statement that 86.5 per cent of the Glueck scale predictions are correct. At first sight, this looks very impressive. But then recall that out of 223 boys, only 9 per cent (21) now satisfy the Youth Board’s definition of “delinquent,” with 3 per cent (6) more termed “pre-delinquent.” In other words, depending on how you reckon, 88 per cent or 91 per cent of the boys are non-delinquent. Now suppose that in 1952 any one of us had predicted that all the boys would be non-delinquent: our prediction, either 88 or 91 per cent correct, would be even better than that claimed for the Glueck scale. The percentage correctly predicted, however imposing, in itself is a meaningless figure—something that Commissioner Whelan should know or the Gluecks should have told him.

Or consider the verbal sleight of hand in the following two sentences, heavily underlined in the Youth Board press release. First: “The majority of those who were rated with a low probability of becoming delinquent are currently presenting no serious community problem.” True; but hardly surprising since all but a few boys are now non-delinquent. But now the next sentence: “The majority of those who are already showing delinquent or pre-delinquent tendencies were assigned a high probability of becoming delinquent.” We are suddenly no longer talking about what proportion of predictions are correct, but about the number of currently delinquent boys whom we assigned to the right category. If we shift back to the form of the first sentence, we get a statement with a different ring; “Slightly more than a third of those rated with a high probability of becoming delinquent are currently delinquent.”

But even this percentage of “correct” predictions turns out to be too high, if we analyze the study’s peculiar definition of “delinquent”—a definition nowhere clear in what Commissioner Whelan said or handed out. A 1957 Progress Report, however, shows that “delinquency” is taken to mean not only “adjudicated delinquency or persistent delinquency involving several police or court contacts,” but “unofficial delinquency” (acts equivalent to official delinquency and delinquent-like behavior), and last but not least, “diagnosed mental illness” [sic]. In the 1957 report, the “adjudicated delinquent” boys constituted less than a third (4) of the thirteen boys lumped together as “delinquent.”

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Until the Youth Board publishes its next Progress Report, we have no way of knowing for sure how many boys labeled “delinquent” fall into each of these three sub-categories. But it is clear that not all of the boys in the “delinquent” category are “adjudicated” delinquents; in fact, if the proportions of the 1957 report still hold, about eight of the twenty-one boys are “adjudicated,” and the remainder are “unofficial” or “mentally ill.”

Granted that delinquency is hard to define with precision in individual cases, including “diagnosed mental illness” under this heading is still hardly cricket—Commissioner Whelan’s statement left us with the unfortunately mistaken impression that it was delinquency, not delinquency plus mental illness, which was being predicted.

But perhaps the most egregious oversight of this press release was that it failed to inform the press and the public that the prediction scale had been changed in the middle of the study and that the figures of this release were based on the new scale. Not until a second press release (designed to answer specific criticisms of the study) did it become generally known that the Gluecks had recently provided the Youth Board with a new scale to exclude ratings of parental affection and—when there was no visible father—of paternal discipline. The result of this change has been to reduce drastically the number of boys in the “predicted delinquent” group. Although the revised predictions (released by the Commissioner) show 35 per cent of the predictions of “delinquency” are correct, the original predictions were only 25 per cent correct. But the Youth Board’s peculiar definition of delinquency makes even this figure misleading: it is probable that of the 67 boys originally given a high probability of delinquency less than 10 per cent have so far turned out to be “adjudicated delinquents”—hardly a noteworthy prediction.

There is, of course, no inherent reason why the Gluecks should not change their scale or their predictions any way they see fit to suit the needs of a new situation. But if the scale is changed after preliminary results have pointed out its errors, the study stops being a test of the scale’s ability to predict, and becomes a frankly exploratory study.

What has the Delinquency Prediction Study in fact demonstrated? Merely that 17 out of 67 boys originally given a high probability of delinquency have so far developed mental illness, or unofficial or official delinquency; while four more currently “delinquent” boys were originally assigned a low probability of delinquency. In other words, the study has shown nothing but a tenuous connection between family disintegration and gross pathology. This is hardly news to anyone; nor is it, in the field of juvenile delinquency, a development of the “tremendous significance” which Commissioner Whelan claimed; nor does it so far provide any basis for “concentrating the city’s preventative resources” on “those youngsters” whom the scale, mostly incorrectly, “spots.”

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The dangers of labeling some boys as “potential delinquents,” especially on the basis of such inadequate predictions as those so far afforded by the Glueck scale, have been pointed out by several groups in response to Commissioner Whelan’s statement. But the inherent inadequacies of this kind of “bad families make bad boys” approach to juvenile delinquency are not as obvious. Nor is it at first sight clear to what an extent the consulting social scientists in the Youth Board study have failed to live up to their responsibilities as consultants.

Studies like the Gluecks’ or the Youth Board’s actually focus attention away from the central issues in juvenile delinquency. By systematically excluding from study any possible relationship except that between disintegrated families and socially pathological behavior, they blind us to those forces which make juvenile delinquency a characteristic problem of American cities in the mid-20th century, but not of non-industrial communities, not of 19th-century cities, not of farm areas, and not—to the same extent—of Russian cities. To be sure, the Gluecks note in passing that they do not necessarily assume that “poverty and its correlates or the cultural forces of urban delinquency areas play no role in the causation of delinquency.” But the Gluecks’ decision to devote the 399 double-column pages of Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency to a non-social, non-cultural study, or the Youth Board’s expense of more than $100,000 for a ten-year project which ignores these factors, or, above all, Commissioner Whelan’s suggestion that the city might concentrate its preventative resources on the boys “spotted” by such a study—all contain the implication that juvenile delinquency is essentially a personal, individual problem of the families and boys concerned, and that its therapy involves essentially individual treatment. That cultural, social, historical, or even ideological factors might help produce delinquency, or that “solving” the problem might require social and cultural changes—these thoughts receive passing attention, if any.

The complex social and ideological roots of juvenile delinquency do not, of course, rule out the treatment of individual delinquents—notoriously difficult though such treatment is. In fact, the Youth Board’s Tri-Boro Study shows that its caseworkers can help disturbed youngsters who will accept treatment. And of even greater ultimate promise is the Youth Board’s work with delinquent gangs, recently reported in another Youth Board book, Reaching the Fighting Gang. Here Youth Board workers made themselves useful to boys in street gangs and were often able to mediate between these working class boys and the demands (and services) of a largely middle-class world. Because of the excellent work and research being done by the Youth Board in other areas, Commissioner Whelan might have questioned the “tremendous significance” of the Delinquency Prediction Study.

A visit to the locale of the Delinquency Prediction Study makes clear some of the inadequacies of a “bad families make bad boys” approach. The boys studied began school in two elementary schools in a southeast Bronx industrial slum area, above and across which the now demolished “El” used to rumble. Rows of two-to-four story, front fire-escape tenements alternate with industries on the back streets and small impoverished shops on the main roads. Housing is uniformly substandard (except for a few increasingly dilapidated public units); on a warm day, the streets and tenement corridors have a heavy smell of garbage and factories. Puerto Rican and Negro children play in and among the garbage cans and run unattended in the streets. All indices of social pathology are high: not only juvenile delinquency, but crime, alcoholism, illegitimacy, and welfare assistance. When the Youth Board began its study, one third of the boys in school were classified as problems by their school authorities. Most of the working population holds unskilled jobs: restaurant workers, manual laborers, moving van men, and so on.

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Historically, this Bronx area often served as a funnel for new groups immigrating to New York: first Eastern European Jews, then Irish immigrants, then Southern Negroes, and now, in addition, Puerto Ricans. (In the eight years of the Youth Board study, the Puerto Rican school population has increased from less than a fifth to about a half of the total.) Local gangs (not fighting at the moment) are organized along ethnic lines, as is whatever sense of community may exist on the blocks. But the area gives the overwhelming impression of lack of community—of disintegration, deterioration, and marginality.

In funnel areas such as these, immigrants undergo their first years of “cultural shock,” making (or often failing to make) the complex and difficult transitions from, say, a Puerto Rican village to industrial New York. Men must learn new jobs and often a new language; families usually move from a position, however unsatisfactory, within a social and cultural community which defines and limits them, to a region which offers only anomie—neither community nor the techniques and incentives for attaining any new position worthy of the name. Even more subtle changes often take place within families: fathers, already shaken by their lack of status and the demands of a new job and language, can be further threatened when their wives must take work to help support the family. It is a rare and remarkable family which does not inflict on its children the strains of its own attempt to adapt to the forbidding climate which greets the immigrant to the Bronx.

Other high delinquency areas have other, and different, social, Cultural, and historical problems, but the site of the Delinquency Prediction Study illustrates another of their common characteristics. Study after study has shown that the lower-class families which inhabit such areas instil few of the restraints on aggression and emphases on personal control, planning, and intelligence which mark the “socialized” middle-class citizen. Lower-class children—who fight, do badly on tests, and “act out” their feelings toward authority—always get into the most trouble with policemen, school authorities, and especially lady schoolteachers (whose own precarious status may make them especially intolerant of aggressive, dirty little boys who hate school). When to these “natural” (in our society at present) disadvantages of lower-class status and upbringing, we add the shock of moving from one world to another, a breakdown of community ties, and disturbing changes of role within families, the development of a delinquent culture among some juveniles is almost certain. Indeed, in this setting, delinquency not only offers a chance to get back at the society which is responsible for these conditions, but—even for the unresentful—it is often the most exciting, adventurous, and vivid alternative to a future which promises neither dignity nor challenge.

In this study, the Gluecks have a major unfulfilled responsibility. To be sure, they should not be blamed for their emphasis on family disintegration as the key to delinquency. But as social scientists and consultants to a public agency, they have a particular responsibility to act as interpreters and guardians of the integrity of their work. And with problems like juvenile delinquency, where public pressure makes the desire for “significance,” “results,” and “solutions” almost overwhelming, their responsibility, if anything, increases. For here it is easiest to “over-sell” social science, promising scientific results where there are only unanswered questions. The mystique of the social sciences is always strong, and strongest among those who wish to bring the most promising “results” to bear on their problems. The informed and liberal public official is far from immune to this over-selling, for coupled with his wish to keep abreast may go insufficient time to study and evaluate the technical findings of his research staff.

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Under such circumstances, consultants like the Gluecks should be prepared to act not only as interpreters but if necessary as dampers to premature enthusiasm. Even if Commissioner Whelan may be unable to interpret the percentages, definitions, and claims of his press release, the Gluecks are; and if they were unable to restrain his enthusiasm, they might at least have dissociated themselves from his recommendations. As the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues noted in a critical analysis of the Delinquency Prediction Study, “As these psychological approaches play an increasing role in our daily lives, it becomes more imperative that the public be protected from distorted and extravagant claims made in the name of scientific validity.”

Even if one has no inherent objection to the misleading aspects of such claims, over-selling is likely to backfire in time. The public or public official, allowed to believe that commonplace findings have tremendous significance for the prevention of an urgent community problem, will sooner or later ask to have the goods produced; and when solutions are not forthcoming, the result is likely to be a complete repudiation of the social scientist and all his trappings.

Indeed, if any finding in the social sciences can be said to have “tremendous significance,” it is that there are, in individual, social, and cultural life, few such findings. The individual is related to the community in subtle, complicated, and often un-apparent ways: an intangible force like the morale of the society may be as potent a determinant of an individual’s delinquency as the indifference of his parents.

“Unraveling juvenile delinquency” is thus vastly more complex than Commissioner Whelan and the Gluecks would lead us to believe. If individual therapy with boys “spotted” as “potential delinquents” would solve the problem, we could rest with easier consciences. But unfortunately for our sleep, the roots of delinquency go beyond the boys and their families to our society, which permits the preconditions of delinquency—social disintegration, deterioration, and marginality—and which offers working class children few prospects as dignified, exciting, and challenging as truancy, gang warfare, vandalism, and theft. Unless these preconditions are eliminated, and until worthier prospects are offered, such efforts to predict individual delinquency are far more likely to entangle than to unravel.

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