Data on the early ages at which children begin smoking cigarettes and using hard drugs surfaced once again during a national community policing organisation event on Sunday last, with Minister of Public Security Khemraj Ramjattan expressing amazement that some were as young as 11. Minister Ramjattan was referring to the findings of recent drug prevalence surveys citing underage use of cigarettes, marijuana, ecstasy, inhalants and cocaine, which he deemed troubling. The studies also addressed alcohol use and abuse, but from all reports Minister Ramjattan did not mention this worrying trend.
Household and school drug prevalence surveys have been done before. In a 2007 school survey the ages of the children were the same, though the incidence of drug use was minimally higher. Therefore, the statistics are neither new nor startling. The specifics on what had been done, if anything, that would have brought about the nominal decrease was not stated and that is what should be troubling. Best practices wherever they occur and however slight they may seem, should be documented for future use.
Meanwhile, it is entirely possible that Minister Ramjattan was preaching to the converted when he addressed those youth attendees at last Sunday’s conference, who probably did not need to be exhorted to “pick up your books”. It would be reasonable to conclude that youths who are already breaking the law by using hard drugs would hardly be interested in a community policing anniversary event.
That being said, there is a dire need to reach those youths before they experiment with alcohol and drugs, as well as after they do, so as to prevent what could easily be a dangerous downward spiral in their lives. It has been established that persons interested in cultivating criminals have actively encouraged youths from seriously troubled homes to run away, drop out of school and the like, and have introduced them to and enabled them in the use and abuse of alcohol and drugs. Thus, the troubled young person is likely to develop a dependency on the undesirable character, which makes it easy for him/her to become a victim or perpetrator of crime.
Sunday’s conference was held under the auspices of the Community Crime and Violence Prevention component of the Ministry of Public Security’s Citizen Security Strengthening Project, and obviously the deterrence of youth crime is one of the targets. In ideal situations communities support families and look out for children, particularly in rural areas where there is poverty and lack of educational and other opportunities. In reality, this is not always the case especially where the community is itself largely impoverished and does not receive the necessary support from local and/or national government.
In addition, there is usually not a one-size-fits-all solution to the challenges that children, youth and parents face. It is important to note that they are individuals and some of them will need attention and support that are specifically tailored to them. However, the tendency is to label them, particularly youth who do not fit society’s predetermined mould, as difficult. This makes reaching them that much more challenging.
Studies have found that for the most part youth lean towards being part of a peer group as this gives them a sense of belonging outside of the family structure. If there are no positive influences, they can veer towards negative ones, which can ultimately set back their growth and development, or at the very end of that spectrum lead them down a dark path.
While this is a generalisation, it is not intended to knock young people’s strengths. On the contrary, there are several notable examples where youth have been proactive in avoiding that sort of lives for themselves. These must be held up like beacons for their peers to model. However, for the most part young people do need sources of love, care and support—not to be confused with aiding and abetting—to get them to where they need to be.
There were two recent examples in the news differentiating these. In one instance, a mother was charged with receiving, relieving and comforting her 19-year-old son and his alleged 17-year-old accomplice, who have been indicted for a murder reportedly carried out during a robbery. In the other, a mother whose 16-year old son had been charged with the unlawful possession of guns and ammunition and had escaped from police custody, ensured that he was found and returned to face his day in court.
The paths these young men’s lives took would have steered them where they are now. They possibly could have been different were there more support and timely interventions aimed at both the youth and their parents. In the local context, apart from social and other groups, the police youth clubs and the Force’s other community outreach activities have helped. But there is need for wider outreach and collaboration with social scientists to assist with mental and emotional needs. These are not impossible tasks and they can truly have an impact on reducing youth crime.