Why 14-year-olds become drug dealers

Jailing 14-year-old crack dealer doesn’t make our communities safer

Posted Jan 19, 2011

A mile from my home, a 14-year-old boy was arrested selling crack cocaine to adults. Police on routine patrol noticed the boy dealing, waited, then arrested two of his customers and the boy. The incident makes one wonder how a child ends up selling hard drugs to adults late on a school night.

Having worked with a few kids like this, I'm going to speculate as to how that boy ended up dealing. He is likely poor, maybe living in subsidized housing that crowds our most marginalized families together. As Bill Strickland, an American community developer reminds us, build communities like prisons and we get people who act like prisoners rather than citizens. Smart communities integrate the poor because it makes communities safer for everyone. Put a child in a world where drugs are plentiful, and dealing looks like a viable career choice in the absence of other options, and it should come as no surprise to any of us that a child chooses to deal.

Of course, it is unlikely the child was acting alone. At least in my community, no 14-year-old has easy access to hard drugs unless some adult is making the kid a front for a network of much older dealers. Those adults know that our laws ensure that the 14-year-old gets far less time in jail than an adult convicted of the same crime. Should we change the laws? Absolutely not. Should we see this young man as a "complex case" requiring help from many different service providers? Yes. The issues here aren't just related to criminal activity. There are serious child protection concerns, as well as questions about the child's engagement to his school, and whether mental health services are needed. Just how bad a life does a kid have to have before he is willing to risk dealing hard drugs in plain view of the police?

In my experience, drug dealing makes sense to these kids as a way to feel they are older, more capable, trustworthy, and responsible. If that list of benefits sounds like what middle-class kids get from playing soccer or babysitting, then we can see why a kid with few choices lands on the street peddling crack. Even with the risks, it solves a problem. It brings him respect. Even jail time becomes a rite of passage, like summer camp and five-day canoe trips in Colorado.

Should crimes like this by juveniles require more time behind bars? I'm not convinced, nor does the research support harsher penalties for teens. Here's why. First, developmentally, lets consider what we get when we release a child from jail five years later (a reasonable sentence for an adult?). He has spent his adolescence in a harsh brutalizing environment. He has no social skills. He is likely stigmatized. He's lost most of his social supports, including connections with his family. Would you like this disengaged, angry, unemployed young man living next to you?

The alternative is to think about this child's life in more complex ways. Research suggests that delinquents are also likely to be children in need of protection. The vast majority have histories of physical or sexual abuse. That means both child welfare workers and mental health care providers have a role working with kids who wind up in correctional facilities. A short time in custody is likely appropriate, but the stats show that after a few weeks the potential for custody to deter a youth from further crime decreases. The child adapts and begins to identify as a career criminal.

At a time when the public mood has turned towards wanting "serious time for serious crime", I'm afraid we may be making our communities more dangerous by building more prisons and underfunding schools. A shorter time in custody is what 14-year-old drug dealers need. But that's not all. They'll also need specialized foster care, intensive supervision, supports to integrate back into school, recreational activities after school, and the life skills to resist the pull back into delinquent peer groups.
These programs are remarkably cost effective when compared with the $30,000-$60,000 it costs to incarcerate a delinquent for a year. And they work better at reducing recidivism than long jail sentences. In fact, the countries with the lowest rates of incarceration for kids have the lowest rates of juvenile crime. This is not a case of fewer criminals requiring fewer prisons. It's the reverse. Fewer prisons make us safer because they free up dollars for social welfare programs like child protection services, and they prevent non-violent offenders from being exposed to the very troubled delinquents they are likely to meet behind bars.

Thankfully, that 14-year-old arrested the other night will get the social services he needs when he leaves custody in a few months. I wouldn't even mind him living next door, as long as my tax dollars go to providing the kind of treatment and support he'll need to leave behind those who abandoned him, then used him as their puppet for crime.