The Need to “Think Out of the Box”

Randall G. Shelden


Note: the following is a portion of the final chapter of my book, Delinquency and Juvenile Justice in American Society (second edition, Waveland Press).


“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

– Albert Einstein


It has become evident that many—if not most—traditional approaches to the prevention and treatment of delinquency have not fared too well. It is time to “think outside the box.” After almost 40 years of studying and teaching the subject of crime and delinquency I am convinced that some very fundamental changes need to be made in the way we live and think before we see any significant decrease in problems. Adults have referred to the “problems” with youths for centuries with such value-laden questions as “what’s wrong with kids these days?”[1]

We Need a New Paradigm

In 1962, Thomas Kuhn wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which presented his argument that scientific advancement  consists of a “series of peaceful interludes punctuated by intellectually violent revolutions" that lead to replacing one conceptual view of the world with another. He described how scientists move from disdain through doubt to acceptance of a new theory and detailed the effect of social and psychological factors on science.

When the prevailing paradigm cannot provide an explanation for anomalies that occur, there can be a crisis in the paradigm itself. Sometimes dramatic shifts in the thinking about a phenomenon create scientific revolutions.  Classic examples include the discoveries of Copernicus who challenged the conventional paradigm of viewing the sun revolving around the earth, Darwin’s work on evolution, the work of Isaac Newton and Galileo, and in the field of linguistics the work of Noam Chomsky (often called the “Chomskian Revolution”).  The development of Renaissance Humanism and the Reformation also come to mind. More recent examples include the Human Genome Project.

            The prevailing paradigm runs into a brick wall when it cannot answer the questions being asked or provide solutions for pressing problems. Einstein’s quotation above identifies that type of crisis. The answers to difficult questions must come from a totally different way of thinking— from people who think outside the box.

The myopic view that youths are the only ones who need to change is usually accompanied with various labels that clearly describe the source of the problem. The labels keep changing, along with changing times. As Jerome Miller has noted, we began with possessed youths in the seventeenth century, moved to the dangerous classes in the eighteenth and late nineteenth centuries, and to the constitutional psychopathic inferiors of the early twentieth century. We continued in the twentieth century with the psychopath of the 1940s, the sociopath of the 1950s, the compulsive delinquent, the unsocialized aggressive, and finally the bored delinquent. “With the growth of professionalism, the number of labels has multiplied exponentially.”[2]

Miller asserts that the problem with these labels is that they maintain the existing order, buffering it from threats that might arise from its own internal contradictions. They reassure "that the fault lies in the warped offender and takes everyone else off the hook. Moreover, it enables the professional diagnostician to enter the scene or withdraw at will, wearing success like a halo and placing failure around the neck of the client like a noose."[3] More importantly, the labels reinforce the belief that harsh punishment works, especially the kind of punishment that includes some form of incarceration, so that the offender is placed out of sight and, not coincidentally, out of mind.

            A recurring problem in juvenile justice reform – and with other reforms – is that after all the political maneuvering, the end result is that nothing changes or the changes are cosmetic.  Daniel Macallair and Mike Males reviewed reforms in San Francisco.

Despite the city’s investment in juvenile justice reform from 1996-1999 there is no evidence of system change.  Instead it appears that new services and programs were simply marginalized.  Marginalization occurs when new programs are designed as simple adjuncts to current operations, rather than intended to replace core system elements.[4]


As noted in chapter 1, we continue to succumb to the “edifice complex.” We love to build these “edifices,” no matter what they are called. Perhaps it is because politicians like to point to a permanent structure as a legacy that they have done something about crime. Or perhaps these buildings—whether a new juvenile detention center, a new prison, a new correctional center, a new police station, a new courthouse, etc.—are a profitable part of the huge “crime control industry.”

I believe otherwise. I believe that we need to quit looking solely at the “troubled youth” or “criminals” as the source of the problem. It is time that those of us among the more privileged sectors of society consider that we too contribute to the problem; perhaps we are the primary contributors.  A change in paradigms was actually suggested almost 40 years ago by sociologist Edwin Schur.  His views certainly have relevance today.

Radical Nonintervention

Chapter 7 discussed the labeling perspective. One of the best illustrations of the labeling perspective as it applies to delinquency was Radical Nonintervention: Rethinking the Delinquency Problem, written by Edwin Schur.[5] His approach seemed quite novel in 1973 when he challenged a number of previously unchallenged assumptions about the problem of delinquency. I believe that his approach has even more relevance in today’s punitive climate.

Resurrecting an Old Perspective

Schur noted that the traditional response to delinquent behavior was that the system needed improvement. Thus, more facilities were built, accompanied by elaborate studies of cost-benefit and systems analyses.[6] Whether or not the system has improved, it is certainly much larger and making more arrests than ever before. Obviously something different is needed to stem this growth and to provide better solutions for at-risk youths.

Schur outlined five general proposals.[7]

1. “There is a need for a thorough reassessment of the dominant ways of thinking about youth ‘problems.’” Schur maintained that many, if not most, behaviors youth engage in (including many labeled as “delinquent”) are “part and parcel of our social and cultural system” and that “misconduct” among youth is inevitable within any form of social order. We pay a huge price, he charged, for criminalizing much of this behavior.

2. “Some of the most valuable policies for dealing with delinquency are not necessarily those designated as delinquency policies.” Addressing education needs, mental-health issues, and poverty/inequality could have a larger impact on delinquency than many of the legal sanctions currently enacted.

3. “We must take young people more seriously if we are to eradicate injustice to juveniles.” Schur notes that many young people lack a sound attachment to conventional society (one of Hirschi’s “social bonds”; see chapter 7). In conjunction with addressing the inequalities noted above, we need to build more respect for young people into our culture. The lack of respect that Schur noted seems to be even greater today, marked by conflicting feelings of fear and admiration toward young people. Policies such as “leave no child behind” is evidence of the latter; increasing punishments for relatively minor offenses under “zero tolerance” policies is evidence of the former.

4. “The juvenile justice system should concern itself less with the problems of so-called ‘delinquents,’ and more with dispensing justice.” Schur was talking specifically about narrowing the jurisdiction of the juvenile court, specifically over status offenses. Little did Schur realize the extent to which net widening would occur in the intervening years. While status offenders have been diverted from the juvenile justice system, many have also been returned through bootstrapping or VCO exceptions.

5. “As juvenile justice moves in new directions, a variety of approaches will continue to be useful.” Schur specifically suggested approaches such as prevention programs that have a community focus plus programs that are voluntary and noninstitutional in nature. One such approach is the Detention Diversion Advocacy Project (DDAP) discussed below.

An Assessment of Schur’s Ideas

As already indicated, much of what Schur articulated four decades ago remains relevant today, as does the labeling approach itself. The juvenile justice system extends far too broadly into the lives of children and adolescents. Mike Males has made this point perhaps more forcefully that most others when he accuses criminologists and public policy makers of blaming kids for most ills of society while ignoring the damage done by adults (see chapter 3).[8]

One of the questions posed by the labeling perspective is: why are certain acts labeled criminal or delinquent while others are not? Another pertinent question is: how do we account for differential rates of arrest, referral to court, detention, adjudication, and commitment based on race and class? Also, why do we overburden juvenile court workers with dealing with behavior that would not be criminal if committed by an adult? Why criminalize adolescent behavior like disturbing the peace and minor altercations? (One may reasonably ask: Whose peace is being disturbed?) These are not merely academic questions; the lives of real people are impacted by policies that ignore such questions and focus only on punishment.

We continue to criminalize behavior that should be dealt with informally, outside of the formal juvenile justice system. Criminalizing truancy has always puzzled me. Why take formal police action because a child is not going to school? Certainly, children should stay in school, because an education is a prerequisite for a decent life. Why use the immense power of the state to enforce compliance? Likewise, kids should obey the reasonable demands of their parents, but families should be left alone to figure things out for themselves. There is no need for state involvement in private family matters, unless some direct physical or other obvious harms are being committed. As noted several times throughout this book, zero-tolerance policies have labeled youths as delinquent or worse for behavior that would have been ignored or handled informally without the policies.


[1] For an excellent discussion of this subject see Sternheimer, K. (2006). Kids These Days: Facts and Fictions About Today's Youth. Landham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

[2] Miller, J. (1998). Last One Over the Wall (2nd ed.). Columbus: Ohio State University Press, p. 234.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Macallair, D. and M. Males (2004). “A Failure of Good Intentions: An Analysis of Juvenile Justice Reform in San Francisco During the 1990s.” Review of Policy Research 21: 63–78. Emphasis added.

[5] Schur, E. (1973). Radical Nonintervention: Rethinking the Delinquency Problem. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

[6] Ibid., p. 117.

[7] Schur, pp. 166–70.

[8] Males, M. (1999). Framing Youth: Ten Myths about the Coming Generation. Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press; and Males, M. (1996). The Scapegoat Generation: America’s War on Adolescents. Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press.