08/16/2010 02:02 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Novel Approach to Stem Gang Recruitment of Minors

We have all heard this familiar story. A young person living in a low-income, crime-ridden neighborhood gets caught up with an older crowd who talk him into assisting in a theft, assault, or worse. The juvenile might be an accomplice driving the car or serving as a lookout, or he might actually be the perpetrator.

For adult gang members, there is an incentive to use juveniles to carry out crimes because they are malleable, easy to recruit, and can be paid less. There is also the belief that, as a juvenile, the punishment if caught will always be significantly less than that of an adult. This may or may not be true from city to city, but nonetheless it is often how a child begins a life of crime. When you think about it, it is really an act of child abuse, perpetrated by the adult.

Which puts us to this question: Can we alter the perverse incentives which encourage adults to bring youngsters into a culture of crime? Should there be a law that adds an automatic and significant enhancement to the sentence of an adult who participates in a crime that involves a youth as a co-conspirator?

Such an additional penalty would apply to the adult's sentence whether the youth is the perpetrator or just an accessory, and, very importantly, intent would not need to be shown. There would be no requirement to show the adult recruited the minor. The enhancement would simply be automatic because of the sheer heinousness of an adult allowing a child to participate alongside him or her in the perpetration of a crime.

This is the intriguing idea of my husband, Andrew I. Caster, M.D., an eye surgeon who is not personally involved in juvenile justice issues, but who has been quietly watching and learning a great deal as I have become an advocate for impoverished and incarcerated youth over the years through my work with the nonprofit I created, The Everychild Foundation. He has become as frustrated as I, particularly in our own city, Los Angeles, at the waste of young lives as youth are encouraged by adult gang members to immerse themselves in a culture of crime

The thinking is that this could be a new tool to help sever the pipeline that leads many youth into a life of crime. It would create a major disincentive for adults from involving kids as co-conspirators, a depraved and truly despicable practice, by overriding the existing aforementioned incentives to utilize juveniles in criminal activities. The law would certainly not replace all the current and proposed new innovations in gang prevention that are already being used, but it might help to change the delicate dynamics that bring children into gang culture by providing disincentives to adults who encourage it.

There is currently Federal law for situations when adults recruit minors for gangs across state lines or when adults recruit minors to commit a Federal offense. There are also a number of state laws penalizing adult gang members for recruiting minors. However, all of them require that intent must be shown on the part of the adult - that the youth was recruited - which makes it more challenging to prosecute such cases.

The same applies to laws that seek to punish adults for "contributing to the delinquency of a minor." It must be proven that the adult knowingly contributed to the misconduct of the youth. My husband's idea eliminates this requirement, thereby making it much easier to prosecute the adults - there would be "strict liability" as in statutory rape.

How is it that so many youth are so easily recruited into breaking the law? The overriding reason is that in most urban, low-income neighborhoods, young men commonly lack a father at home leaving the situation ripe for them to find surrogates and a feeling of belonging in gangs that welcome them as eager and willing patsies.

However, if the word would spread about the huge personal cost of being caught engaging in crime with juvenile co-defendants, many adults would be more likely to shy away from involving children, thereby increasing the odds that the kids will instead hopefully stay in school, participate in community after-school programs, and ideally, stay out of trouble. Therefore, one key to such a law being successful would be widespread publication of its existence to the target population. Clergy, social and probation workers and police involved in the neighborhoods could be part of this effort. Could this be effectively done? This would be something that needs to be explored

Most of the juvenile justice experts with whom we discussed this enhancement idea seem to like it - prosecutors, judges, academics and advocates. However, a major concern is that most young adults have not fully matured, emotionally and intellectually (as current adolescent brain research shows), and could be swept up under such a law along with, say, 30 year olds. Also, as some minors appear to be much older than they are, certain adults could mistakenly assume they were 18 or older. Therefore, my suggestion would be to think about only applying the proposed enhancement to adults 21 and older, with mitigating factors depending on the age of the minor involved. For instance, a 25 year old engaging in crime with a 13 year old would see a more severe enhancement than a 21 year old who involved a 17 year old.

We believe this is a law, if carefully crafted to take into account the above-mentioned concerns, that all sides could potentially get behind: Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, law enforcement, child advocates, and reform advocates. So in order to explore the idea more thoroughly and carefully, we encourage anyone to help us think through the pros and cons. If the pitfalls could be solved and the potential effectiveness verified, it could potentially become one more tool to help sever a very busy and tragic pipeline.