Concept of the Month -- June 2006

Suggestibility and the Juvenile Offender

One often hears others say about a juvenile offender that he was led astray by others. A frequently applied term is that he is a "follower" and not an instigator or a leader. At the heart of such characterizations is the view that a particular youth really should not be faulted for his behavior, that his conduct occurred because be was corrupted by someone else. The explanation that a person was really not to blame because a stronger, alluring person prevailed is along the same line. It perhaps reached an extreme in the Washington, D.C. sniper case. Purportedly, Lee Malvo at the age of 17, behaved in a manner that was out of keeping with his own personality because he was under the sway of a much older man, John Muhammad. Mr. Malvo's defense asserted that Lee Malvo was vulnerable because he was emotionally needy -- in search of a father figure. Therefore, he was suggestible to all that Mr. Muhammad had to teach him and, ultimately, to killing innocent people whom they did not know.

Let's look at the facts. People are suggestible to some things, not others. Kids will follow some youngsters, not others. The person reading this might be very suggestible to going with a friend to shop at a big discount sale of clothing. If he or she were asked to get some cocaine, he likely would excuse himself and seek other company. He would not follow the lead of the individual proposing the illegal venture. We are suggestible to or follow the lead of people who share our interests. Most people who met John Muhammad would have run the other way. Not Lee Malvo who became a very eager student for all that Mr. Muhammad had to teach him.

In evaluating statements about suggestibility and being a follower, one needs to carefully scrutinize the "follower's" personality, his interests and what appeals to him. If such an evaluation occurs, it will likely appear that the "follower" was simply taking advantage of a proposal that already was of interest to him. He followed someone's lead by his own free will. Even if he got into more than he bargained for, he still very likely had a choice to extricate himself and follow no further.

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