Trick or Treat

Decriminalising Youth
by Joseph Furolo

I'd like to share some observations I've made about young people and our community, particularly in regard to what causes many boys falling foul of the law. These observations are drawn from a privileged inside view offered to me by a number of youths who have perhaps seen me as a link with the community; an adult friend but who's also part of that different world. Not just another sincere social worker or understanding policeman or empathetic teacher who still has their job to do, but someone who is on their side with no other role than being a friend. Special mention goes to Michael, my Little Brother, for 5 years of friendship and true brotherhood. I've learned so much from him and my life is fuller, more meaningful and lively because of him, his values, his family and the people that are important to him. I am proud to count him as a friend and brother and he has a special place in the heart of my family.

The Journey Begins....

We are all familiar with the metaphor "Life is a journey". Our journey starts in the relative safety of home. Our circle then expands from family and friends through school into our local and broader community. Yet for many, this same pathway to maturity can become an obstacle course - one that favours those who are resourced and socially dexterous but punishes the isolated and socially inexperienced.

What is it that determines whether our journeymen get a "trick" or a "treat" if they decide to venture out, tentatively knocking on the doors of their neighbours, trying to master the chaos of that other world into which they must venture some day?

Looking at under-18-year-olds, I see a number of dynamics that influence how our wayfarers brush up against crime, punishment and community ostracism.


Most people, when discussing the developmental needs of youth, would accept that the need to belong is a basic and powerful need. Not only is our boys' need to belong much broader than simply a peer issue, but much of his communal experience actively discourages his efforts to associate with peers at school and in the local community. Boys just hanging together is often seen as justification enough to disperse and discourage their association, either for fear of what could develop or even simply disliking how it looks.

So what do our boys do when there are no invitations into adult male community and when community with peers is discounted and discouraged? They deepen their attachments and loyalties to each other and are prepared to begin defining themselves as outsiders. They will pledge loyalty, protect the secrets of their brothers, go underground, give themselves a gang name, devise a basic code of conduct and increase the stakes of belonging. And, of course, all this has the effect of further isolating themselves from adults and limiting their ability to expand their repertoire of socially acceptable, engaging and useful behaviours. What they have achieved, however, is a reputation... one that will be professionally documented in school reports, be on the pursed lips of neighbours and will cause their name, age and address to be entered on the police database - for future reference.

I was flabbergasted to see one expert on street gangs describing how gangs are spreading, becoming harder to identify and have an increasing number of "self-identified" gang members: "Today's gangs are often decentralized, without a leader, and often exist without official membership. According to the ATF study, 80 percent of the gangs have no associative colors or signs. Furthermore, according to Howell, gangs have spread from inner-city locales into the nation's suburbs and even to small, rural towns."

Sounds like he's describing most of our kids to me...

Compound this ludicrous suspicion of young people in general with the isolation and social inexperience of many of them and we see lots of boys through a distorted lens. Not only do we not see any qualities in them to respect but also we misinterpret their limited coping skills as further evidence of their undesirability. Many boys in trouble are just as likely to be repeating the often faulty advice of peers and family. "Don't let them get away with that!", "It was their fault letting you use the keys", "He's a real asshole so it doesn't really matter". And if family and friends get involved in the conflict, things can just get worse. Further, many of our boys are familiar with self-reflection. "Sorry" or "I did the wrong thing" or "I've learnt something about myself" are often hard to grasp for some, let alone apply.

But all can grasp and vigorously respond to the need to belong.

Expressing their values

Belonging is of course, the main dynamic operating for our boys - especially up to about 16 or 17. How they then express the values they feel is another dynamic that often gets them into trouble. A conviction for assault for Matthew starts out as an angry outburst against someone who supposedly wanted to make trouble for one of his brothers. Loyalty cocktailed with immaturity results in the prolonged attention of police and courts. Another value for our boys is self-reliance and the ability to protect their interests and the interests of those they care about. Boys are often the victims of violence and property crime themselves, and will heroically get even rather than seek redress through the law. A dispute about dog ownership ends up in a serious home invasion charge.

A boy's sense of duty also often triggers the attentions of the law. Dave, who has a track record for sorting things out, will get called on again and again to fight his brother's battles - the 'family hammer'. During the police interview, loyalty demands the instigator is never mentioned let alone turned in.

Boys are inspired by good and positive values. However, without the benefit of adults who recognize the basic goodness of their motivation, many boys make faulty judgments.

Dealing with conflict and humiliation

I've observed that our boys have quite limited conflict handling skills and don't understanding their own 'bodiliness' when dealing with verbal and physical aggression. It is easy for conflicts to escalate, if not immediately, then after our boys have wound themselves up to pursue revenge for the humiliation they felt. Everyone from friends, lovers, friends of friends, family, blow-ins, step fathers and bouncers through to their peers on the other side of the 'hood', can be the target of these powerful, recurring and de-stabilising feelings. They often overestimate their own savvy and cunning and underestimate other's power and single-mindedness. A sense of proportion is so often lacking in their experience of conflict. They can easily move from acts against the person to acts against property. In doing so they also escalate the level of attention from the law. The law can often deal with a scrap leniently but once property is involved, the law bares its teeth. Yet for our inexperienced boy, it's only one small step in the payback continuum.

This dynamic is by no means restricted to perceived hurts to the boy himself but also includes slights to people he cares about. Insulting a boy's mother or family or girl friend is a hot button boys and adults use effectively to get a reaction. Of course, it's not just our boy's isolation and inexperience that causes the escalation. I'm astonished at how many adults, including teachers and police, feel they can take social and professional liberties when dealing with a young boy or man. Many think it's OK to muscle up to them, ridicule them and summarily dismiss their explanations - things they wouldn't do if they were dealing with you or me in the same situation.

Nick has been loudly ridiculed by a pool attendant - in front of friends and strangers - for his clumsy swimming style mixed with exuberance. A crowd of boys is waiting for a train, milling and talking. Carl and Abdel are showing off their new reversible jackets. All the boys get dispersed after a loudspeaker announcement unnecessarily directs security to the platform. Neighbouring boys harass Anthony's girlfriend on her way home from the station. After being told, he runs out of the house to challenge them, club in hand as the patrol car drives by. Danny, 'known to the police', and his mate Malik are walking to their special school and are pulled up by the police to hear "I know you - you're one of the xxxxx kids - your mother's mad! Your sister's mad! Your whole family's mad!" Without his friend holding him back, Danny would have got that day off school - and might never have returned. The supervisor at the local Blue Light disco feels he has permission to make derogatory statements about our boy's mum. Challenged, the supervisor retracts but tails the boys all night long and later, tempers flare... the police are on hand. Pushed up against the wall, arm in a lock, the Constable asks, "Does that hurt?" "No"..."How about now?"... as he tightens the lock...

There is another way some of our boys deal with conflict and humiliation. They run away. Seventeen-year-old Peter is used to put-downs. He gets blamed for everything that goes wrong in his family. And he accepts this role. Home isn't a very nurturing place but his parole conditions do require he stays there. Uncharacteristically, things start going well for him - the genuine attention and commitment of a sensible girl, interest from a sports coach that can see some talent, a meaningful work-experience program for a change. Completely lacking in judgment and brimming with his new found confidence, when asked to get something from his girlfriend's mother's car he decides to take it down the drive and into the lane. His unlicensed drive ends in several thousand dollars damage, the breakdown of his relationship, another charge and final confirmation of his hopelessness. "I fucked up - again...", he tells me. And no one has seen him since.

The Drive for Space

Boys will put a lot of energy into spending time together. They will do so in their places and on their turf. Of course, one tension they regularly encounter is the notion held by many adults that boys don't have a claim on public space at all. This attitude just reinforces their emerging "outlaw" view of themselves. Boys, being very obliging and co-operative when it comes to taking their assigned roles within a group, are happy to play the undesirables to our clique. Frequently shooed away from shopping centers and the main street of their suburb, dispersed at railway stations, given a wide berth when they congregate in the local park and given the boon of a police presence when they eat en-masse at their McDonalds outlet, our boys are never far from triggering the one perfectly consistent element in their otherwise inchoate lives - the attention of the law.

Traveling alone or together is a frequent trigger for falling foul of the law. From fare evasion fines, through ructions in the hothouse environment of trains to traffic offences and unroadworthy cars, our boy can easily graduate to the bureaucracy of enforcement and a disastrous financial status. With 22% youth unemployment, many of the boys that are driven by space and mobility needs are part of that percentage, becoming debtors long before they become earners. Usually, our boys would only have the option of peer education for their driving skills and mobility savvy. Combined with unattainable insurance premiums for most young drivers, we have a lot of unskilled drivers using uninsured, unroadworthy and often unregistered cars. Juicy grist for the punitive mill.

Seventeen-year-old Jordan, living with his mum, is keen to do the right thing and get his license and get on the road. He borrows a friend's automatic transmission car and succeeds in getting a limited license. Aware of how keen he is for his own set of wheels but with limited means, mum stretches the budget and presents him with a $500 vehicle registered for the rest of the year. With his "P" plates displayed he is off to see friends on the other side of town but he speeds and isn't wearing his seat belt. He is pulled over by two policemen in a patrol car and presents his license with name and address. Good. The police are doing their job - he shouldn't have done what he did. The police book him for speeding, driving a manual vehicle and not wearing his seat belt. Fair cop. He is instructed to leave his vehicle on the side of the road and not drive it one more inch. The police drive off. Stuck in the middle of nowhere, no way to get his car back home and off the road, he doesn't know what to do. After 15 minutes he decides to go home in his car. Just home, there is a knock on the door - one of the same policemen is at the door and the other stands by the gate. He is issued another fine for driving the manual. Remonstrating doesn't help and in frustration he kicks towards the officer at the gate - his shoe flies off and hits him. The police use capsicum spray, bundle him into the car and process him for four hours for an assault charge on top of the double dose of traffic fines.

Police have a lot to do. It wasn't their job to help him get home or maybe drive his car back for him. But they did know where he lived - they did take the trouble to follow him home. And they did take the trouble to fine him - again - and lay an assault charge as well.

I don't know exactly what it is, but there is something really demoralizing about this story..."Trick or Treat"? I wonder how his mum felt?


Here are some really important counterpoints to what I've emphasized up to know. Some boys are often willful and knowledgeable in their wrongdoing - they can intend to deceive, rort, steal, exploit and attack without compunction and without triggers. Whatever it is that drives some of them may be common to what drives some adults who have lashings of criminal intent. I don't have anything further to offer on this - other than to stress how absolutely important it is to be able to see the whole picture for each journeyman - before pronouncing judgment on him.

Another counterpoint is that whenever a boy is treated civilly, professionally, respectfully and even-handedly by police, teachers, adults, shop-owners, attendants and guards, he does respond - not always immediately - and marvels at how different that interaction is from many others. The policeman that explains what he is doing and why and expresses some sensitivity to how things are for the boys, gives them an opportunity to explore other ways of interacting with the police. The teacher that connects with our boy makes the difference that countless repeats of the School Counselor's regime of Taming Anger and Self Talk workbooks and sundry behaviour modification packages never achieved. Many believe that expecting such constant professionalism from adults in the school and the police station towards our boys is like trying to maintain social niceties in a jungle. But if it doesn't happen there, it's unlikely they would ever begin to acknowledge the benefits of adopting, maintaining and promoting community standards of behaviour.

My final counterpoint: it seems to me that as a community WE are not taking responsibility for our actions. Any outrage we might feel about teachers, police and our boy's situation needs to include an honest assessment of our individual responsibilities - as ordinary citizens. Community standards of behaviour SHOULD be enforced. But enforcement without providing the evident benefits of BELONGING to a community is simply bastardization. With mandatory imprisonment adopted by Australian governments, we can no longer afford to take lightly our responsibilities to ANY members of our community who 'trigger' into the justice system. It is even more important we stop abrogating our own responsibilities to our young men and boys, trying to run our obstacle course. More and better youth support programs can help a lot but nothing builds on the positive qualities of our boys and resources them to find their place and make their unique contribution to our community life like the willing, direct, mutual, long term, personal and supportive relationships with established members of the community.

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