How to fight crime: Listen and learn

Debbie Jacob -
Debbie Jacob -


ON CHRISTMAS DAY, Newsday featured a story I wrote on Ricardo Gittens, one of the students I taught in the Youth Training Centre (YTC), now called YTRC. Gittens spent 16 years and three months – half of his life – in remand charged with murder. His story is not unusual. As a matter of fact, it is indicative of many at-risk teenagers’ stories I have heard over my 15 years of teaching in prisons.

As crime spirals out of control it becomes more important every day that we try to understand how and why this problem continues to grow. We need to seek solutions. I know everyone is incensed by the crime that plagues this country, but we can’t fix problems we don’t understand.

I hope politicians read Gittens’s story and learn about some of the issues we need to address when it comes to teenagers and crime. The link for that story is provided at the end of this column. Gittens’s story provides many insights. It gives us much to consider.

I came away with five major issues in that story.

1. The failure of our education system to engage and keep at-risk youth in school is our first major problem. In his story, Gittens said, “I found school wasn’t cutting it. I needed money, clothes and shoes. I was doing a trade, welding, but that didn’t feel like my line of work.”

When it comes to students, we have a one-track mind, namely, CXC passes. We assume that all students are privileged enough to buy into the delayed gratification that school theoretically offers. If you stay in school, you will get a better job with more money in the long run. But many poor children don’t have that luxury. They don’t always have parents who can provide for their basic needs.

What if we had these at-risk students in schools with basic CXC subjects tailored to meet their needs instead of taking university preparation classes? What if we arranged jobs for them for a couple of hours a day or on the weekend and tailored their classes towards the skills they need for the workforce: business maths that stress savings, communication skills, practical writing and reading for life? Students would need to stay in school to keep the jobs the schools help them to get. Let the business community become actively involved in solving our crime problems.

2. Gittens’s story shows that at-risk teenagers need structure, love, support – financially and emotionally – rules and discipline. They need role models to instil confidence in them. When these needs are not met at home, at-risk teens hang out with older men – often gang members – who address their needs and evoke a sense of gratitude. Their sense of loyalty is generally off the charts. These two attributes, gratitude and loyalty, become a disastrous combination if they are not channelled in the right direction.

3. When you read Gittens’s story, you will clearly see typical teenage impulsivity. Teens don’t think beyond the moment. If they are incapable of considering consequences then they don’t feel fear. This can be easily exploited.

4. At-risk teenagers with many emotional issues self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. This, combined with a lack of discipline, little or no parental guidance, wrong influences and none of the analytical skills they should be learning in school, means they have no foundation for staying on the right path.

5. Most of the teenagers who get into trouble with the law have no sense of purpose. They’re not able to visualise a future. They live in the moment and live in a time defined by instant gratification. They have no long-term goals. Indeed, most young men in prison tell me they don’t expect to live to be 30. They are trying to survive in the volatile moment that defines their life.

It takes more than complaining to solve our crime problems. We need action beginning with providing a better and more relevant education for at-risk students in our schools. We need to teach communication skills, anger management and values like empathy and compassion.

Teenagers should be involved in a guided work/school programme that teaches them time management, discipline and self-sufficiency. Gang leaders do all this work right now and reap the benefits from the relationships they foster with vulnerable, loyal at-risk teens – boys and girls.

As long as we make the mistake of feeling that crime is someone else’s problem, the problem continues.

Here is the link to the feature about Ricardo Gittens. .


"How to fight crime: Listen and learn"

More in this section