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by Papa Bear          


Explaining crime and delinquency is a complex task. A multitude of  factors exist that contribute to the understanding of what leads someone to engage in delinquent behavior. While biological and psychological factors hold their own merit when explaining crime and delinquency, perhaps social factors can best explain juvenile delinquency.

The social causes of juvenile delinquency encompass a wide array of theories that have been set forth by criminologists and sociologists. Some theorists view delinquency as a function of the individual while others view delinquency as a macro level function of society. 
            Many of the theories that will be presented will be applicable to at least some instances of crime and delinquency in society. Crime is such a diverse topic, that the explanation of this social problem is just as diverse. 

            Just as the causal factors of delinquency are diverse and numerous, so are the definitions.  "Sociologists define deviance as any behavior that members of a social group define as violating their norms. This concept applies both to criminal acts of deviance and non-criminal acts that members of a group view as unethical, immoral, peculiar, sick, or otherwise outside the bounds of respectability".
Calhoun's definition looks at delinquency as an act that defies or diverges from cultural and legal norms, others have founded their own definitions. V.A. Tomovic cites Breckenridge's definition of delinquency as "a condition arising in the matrix of sociopersonal disorganization and in the sequence of experience and influences that shape behavior problems. It is the product of dynamic social process, involving numerous variables and the failure of personal and social controls. It is a symptom of deep socioeconomic and social ailments" .  This definition of delinquency sees crime as a basic lack of positive social ties or bonds. 

            It is important to note the distinction between crime and delinquency. Where as a
crime is an act that breaks criminal code which is created by society though written law, delinquency and deviance can be acts that merely break 'cultural law' or norms.  Delinquency is usually specific and descriptive of age. Tomovic cites Redl and Winelian, "The legal concept of delinquency simply states which type of behavior is forbidden by law, in which state, for which age group of children and so forth. The cultural meaning of the word might summarize all statements indicating that a piece of behavior is in contradiction with the value demands of the dominant culture within which a given child moves".




Juvenile Delinquency: A Brief History

I. The harsh beginnings.

Children were viewed as non-persons until the 1700's. They did not receive special treatment or recognition. Discipline then is what we now call abuse. There were some major assumptions about life before the 1700's.

The first assumption is that life was hard, and you had to be hard to survive. The people of that time in history did not have the conveniences that we take for granted. For example, the medical practices of that day were primitive in comparison to present-day medicine. Marriages were more for convenience, rather than for child-bearing or romance.

The second assuption was that infant and child mortality were high. It did not make sense to the parents in those days to create an emotional bond with children. there was a strong chance that the children would not survive until adulthood.

II. The beginning of Childhood.

At the end of the 18th century, "The Enlightenment" appeared as a new cultural transition. This period of history is sometimes known as the beginning of reason and humanism. People began to see children as flowers, who needed nurturing in order to bloom. It was the invention of childhood, love and nurturing instead of beatings to stay in line. Children had finally begun to emerge as a distinct group. It started with the upper-class, who were allowed to attend colleges and universities.

III. Something new?

Throughout all time there has been delinquency. It may not have had the delinquency label, but it still existed. In ancient Britain, children at the age of seven were tried, convicted, and punished as adults. There was no special treatment for them, a hanging was a hanging. Juvenile crime is mentioned as far back as ancient Sumeria and Hammurabi, where laws concerning juvenile offenders first appear in written form.


The Modernization of Juvenile Delinquency

I. Industrialization.

Industrialization set into motion the processes needed for modern juvenile delinquency. The country had gone from agriculture to machine-based labor-intensive production. Subsistence farming quickly turned into profit making. People who were displaced from their farm work because of machinery were migrating to the city to find work. This led to urbanization in such places as Chicago, which in turn caused the cities to burst at the seams.

II. Urbanization.

There was a huge increase in the amount of movable goods that were produced. These movable goods were easy to steal. The stealing of these goods made property crime rise tremendously in these urban centers. The wealth of the upper-class increased, and stealing became a way of living.

These large urban centers also created another problem. The work place was now seperated from the home. During the hard times both parents took jobs. There was also very little for the youths to do, especially when school was not in session. It was then that youths were becoming increasingly unsupervised. These youths were largely unemployed. Without supervision, and with movable goods easily available, stealing became a way of life.

The huge influx of people to these urban areas overwhelmed society. The factories could not keep up, and unemployment became a factor. Poverty became widespread.

III. Salvage Attempts.

Poorhouses were created to keep youthful offenders away from trouble. The idea behind them was to take the children of the "dangerous" classes out of their "dangerous environment." Kids were thought to be salvageable needed to be saved. The majority of these children were rounded up for the crime of being poor, not because they committed a crime. These houses, sometimes refered as reform schools, were very harsh. This was contradictory to the ides the they needed nurturing and love. In New York, houses of refuge were created to do the same. The houses eventually became overfilled, and children were sent out West as indentured servants. As many as 50,00 children were shipped out. Some of them never were allowed to have contact with their parents again.

Indusrtialization and urbanization played a tremendous role in the modern era of Juvenile Delinquency. A lot of these factors are true today. Many more farms are going bankrupt. Unemployment is still a factor with the youth of today. We are a culture that values material wealth over and above all. Youth who have no money to live the way they want will often turn to crime as a way to satisfy themselves. As our nation changes, the way in which juveniles are treated will also have to change. The current trends in Juvenile Delinquency have an impact on how we view the problem.






The theories that attempt to explain or predict delinquency mention and examine many different societal factors or units within society that are applicable within the theories. Families, peers, schools, and socioeconomic status are all social factors that are examined in many of the causal theories. 
            Demographics and the relationships one has in society are also examined in some of the explanatory theories. 
Families are important to consider when trying to explain juvenile delinquency. The family unit is crucial to a child's development and healthy upbringing. In addition, much of what a child learns is through their family or guardians. A criminal parent can  teach their child adverse lessons about life when their child views or witnesses their parent's delinquent behavior. 
Peers can also teach an adolescent or child criminal behavior just as the family member can. Family members and peers can also cause delinquent patterns of behavior by  labeling  their child as delinquent. This is somewhat of the "if the shoe fits, wear it" saying. If a child feels as though they are viewed as delinquent, then they will act as such and find a sense of self-esteem by doing so. 
            Even though the family and peers (as well as the school) can influence a juvenile to participate in crime, the decision still rests on their shoulders. Some theorists argue that participation in crime is a  rational choice  and that the rewards and consequences are carefully calculated out by the individual. The choice to commit a crime can by influenced by many factors, including the ones that I outlined here. However, if a juvenile has many  ties or bonds to members in society, they are less likely to make the choice to commit a crime for fear of ridicule, embarrassment, or scorn from those they associate with. 
The demographic characteristics of a person's living  environment  can also be a contributing factor to criminal patterns of behavior. Adverse living conditions and a crime-prone neighborhood can lead to criminal activity. 
            There are also various structural theories  that can put juvenile delinquency in a context of better understanding.



Structural Functionalists. Some theorists look at the way society is structured to explain juvenile delinquency. In certain situations, a society or even a neighborhood can be structured in such a way that promotes delinquency and criminal behavior. Merton states, "some social structures exert a definite pressure upon certain persons in society to engage in non conforming rather than conforming behavior"  (Calhoun 174) . Calhoun continues by stating, "American society was Merton's prime example. Our culture places tremendous emphasis on financial success. Children are raised not only to believe that they might become President of the United States but also to dream that they might become millionaires. At the same time, legitimate opportunities to become wealthy in our society are limited" (Calhoun 174). 

These structural and ideological "dreams" can cause great distress for those who can not reach these goals. In many cases, and as Structural Functionalists would view crime, this distress or strain causes delinquency. A juvenile who is told that he or she can not go to college and will always be lower or middle class, may very well rebel against these societal goals and engage in criminal activity. This is a function of the juvenile attempting to preserve their self-esteem and self efficacy. Juveniles who engage in crime do so, according to this perspective, as a means to defy societies defined goals and innovate their own goals of delinquent behavior. 

Strain theorists share a similar perspective with Structural Functionalists. The Strain Theory argues that:
          "people who commit crimes have basically the same values
           as everyone else. Primarily among these values is an emphasis
           on achievement and success. According to this theory, the 
           avenues for the achievement of success are greatly restricted 
           for people in the lower class. Thus, they are faced with a cruel 
          dilemma; either they abandon the major American values of success
          and prosperity or they abandon another--obedience of the law" 
This theory continues what the  Structural Functionalist perspective stated-- conditions in society that prevent a juvenile (or any member in society) from attaining success can cause a defiance of socially accepted norms and mores, which leads to engagement of delinquent acts. This pattern of delinquency can lead to a life in prison or a life without success defined by society.
            "Strain theory has been mainly applied to juvenile delinquency among lower-class boys. The central idea is that these young people share the value of success with the larger culture, but because of inadequate socialization they are unable to effectively compete. This produces strain, which they seek to resolve". Strain theory has its  limitations  however. It does not explain suburban delinquency for example. 


Conflict Theory.  The conflict perspective underlies the basis for understanding  the strain theory as it relates to juvenile delinquency. Tomovic cites Kinloch to make clear the conflict perspective: 
          Social conflict...  is a function of the ongoing dialectic between 
          subculture as humanity attempts to meet its primary needs on an 
          ongoing and changing basis. Sociology, according to this view, 
          represents the historical study of society's changing economic 
          structure as the basis of social conflict. Finally, 'society' is but a 
          temporary equilibrium of this dialectic at particular stages of its 
          economic development" 

A conflict theorist would say that juvenile delinquency comes as a result of a conflict in society between two or more groups. This conflict is most often class based and economic.Conflict can also be as a result of a power struggle in society. Conflict can arise between the legal system ( judges, police officers etc.) and minority groups who feel oppressed by the legal system.This conflict can also be ethnocentric, racial or be grounded in merely any ideological grievance between groups in society. From this perspective juvenile delinquency can be viewed as a function of acting out against those in a conflicting group in society. For example, the racial riots of 1968 could be an example of African Americans rebelling against the oppressive dominant society. In this case, delinquency may be legally wrong, but perhaps morally right as justified by society. In the example of a juvenile, consider a juvenile who damages his/her abusive parents car and phones in the house so they can't be followed or abused further when he or she runs away. In this example, the delinquent commits a illegal act by destroying property, but it perhaps, as viewed by some, a morally righteous thing to do to escape an abusive situation. 
            A juvenile acting out of conflict is not always morally justified though. Consider a juvenile taking a knife to school (to use) because of their grievances with their dean in a high school. this act is done out of conflict of opinion with the dean, although the act is hardly justified in any rational manner. A juvenile engaging in delinquent acts towards a conflicting group can also be sub culturally  accepted.


Labeling theory is somewhat of a "if the shoe fits, wear it" theory. Labeling theory suggests that: 
          Social groups make deviance by making rules whose infractions 
          constitute deviance and by applying these rules to particular 
          people and labeling them as outsiders. From this point of view, 
          deviance is not a quality of the act that a person commits, but rather 
          a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to 
          the "offender." The deviant is one to whom that label has successfully 
          been applied; deviant behavior is the behavior that people so label 
           (Leighninger 332)
Basically, when a person gets caught for engaging in a particular crime, that person may begin to see their self in a negative context (just as those who label the person as delinquent see the juvenile). Labeling theory is especially crucial to understanding juvenile delinquency because it is during the time of adolescence that juvenile's self identities are formed. "Labeling theory also helps explain the longer-term consequences of a deviant label on a person's social identity"  (Calhoun 179)
            If a juvenile is labeled as delinquent, then their self- identity may develop as such and they will be far more prone to engaging in criminal activity. Because of a juvenile's
negative self-concept, he or she will  choose to engage in crime and  associate with other delinquents. 


The Rational Choice Theory is upheld by many conservatives who view juvenile delinquency from an individual based perspective. There are some psychologists who will argue that "those who deviate do not know what they are doing". Rational choice theorists will argue this perspective. "They argue that in many (if not most) cases, deviance is a result of highly rational calculation of risks and awards. Prospective deviants weigh their chances of gain against the risks of getting caught, and thereby decide a course of action".

Juveniles however, do not always choose the most rational actions. There values are different than adults (and in many cases their values have not developed/formed fully yet), and there motives may be different than an adult criminal. Adolescents are also notorious for not thinking before they act! There actions which constitute delinquency may come as a result of acting our against authority, or to rebel against  cultural norms and goals .
            For example, a juvenile may decide to set off a smoke bomb or ignore an administrator in a cafeteria as an act of defiance towards administrative authority in a learning institution.


The Social learning Theory or the Differential Association Theory states that crime is a learned behavior. "People learn criminal behavior through the groups with which they associate. If a person associates with more groups that define criminal behavior as acceptable than groups that define criminal behavior as unacceptable, the person will probably engage in criminal behavior" .  Put another way, "just as people must learn though socialization how to conform to their society's norms, they must also learn how to depart from those norms. In other words, deviance, like conforming behavior, is a product of socialization" . This theory shows how a juvenile can socially learn deviant behavior from those around him/her such as  family, peers, schoolmates or anyone else that he or she may come in contact with. The parents and peers are probably the most powerfull agents in socialization. 
            To examplify this theory, imagine a child growing up in a home where the parents rountinely engaged in criminal acts. The child would grow up assuming that these acts may not be as wrong as society or the law has defined them. 
            If a child is around delinquent peers, one can also learn the activities of their  peers  and be much more prone to engaging in criminal activity.


Cultural Deviance Theory.  Theorists from this perspective look at the enviroment and sub-culture that a juvenile resides in. This perspective sees delinquency as a function of the surroundings or environment that a juvenile lives in. The saying, "society made me do it" could help to better understand this perspective. 
          "Delinquency rates were [are] consistently higher in inner city, 
           impoverished neighborhoods. Looking at delinquency rates over 
           time they found a very interesting thing. The delinquency rates 
           for neighborhoods remained remarkably constant over time even
           though the population of the neighborhood often completely 
           changed. A neighborhood might be Italian for a number of years, 
           then change to mainly Irish, and then gradually change until it was 
           almost completely African American, yet the delinquency rate 
           stayed constant".

The cultural deviance theory would state that juvenile delinquency is a function of the enviroment. It is the environment that produces juvenile delinquents. So what are the environmental conditions that are condusive to creating a delinquent environment? The social conditions that make up these areas are "physical deteriation; economic segregation; racial and ethnic segregation; a high incidence of social ills, such as infant mortality, mental illness, unemployment, divorce and desertion; and a high rate of dropping out of school".
            A juvenile growing up in a culturally deviant area will be subjected to criminal lifestlyes, and could  learn deviant practices, patterns of behavior, and norms. 



Preventing juvenile crime

There is no question that preventing crime is preferable to punishing it. Never is that more true than in the case of juvenile delinquency, so often a cry for help from a troubled youngster. 

The UN Guidelines for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency, known as the 'Riyadh Guidelines', recognize the importance of preventing young people from being stigmatized by the justice system. The Guidelines call for the development of measures that “avoid criminalizing and penalizing a child for behaviour that does not cause serious damage to the development of the child or harm to others.” This statement sends a profound message: Preventing juvenile delinquency or crime is not just a matter of protecting society—its aim is to help children overcome their misdeeds and fulfil their potential. It is also less costly and more efficient for society to prevent young people from starting on criminal careers than to pay for the outcome of criminal behaviour. 

©1993 Jason Eskenazi/Impact Visuals

The Convention on the Rights of the Child requires that children who are deprived of their liberty, or incarcerated, be treated with humanity and respect for their dignity. This young boy is in a children's detention centre in Moscow.

Many programmes have been established to help young people. In the Canadian province of Ontario, a Reasoning and Rehabilitation Project run by probation officers helps juveniles to modify impulsive behaviour and learn alternative responses to interpersonal 0problems. Recidivism has fallen dramatically among the participants. In the Netherlands, Project HALT requires vandals to personally compensate their victims but in such a way that avoids stigmatizing them with the label of 'criminal'. 

The Philippines has a programme, begun in 1986, that focuses on substance abuse, sexual exploitation and children in conflict with the law. Active in 32 cities, it includes a range of activities to support street children and prevent juvenile delinquency. Belgium, Israel and the Netherlands all have a Children's Rights Shop where young people can find help for problems relating to the law and their rights. 

Young people who commit offences should bear the responsibility for their actions—but they must be held accountable in a manner appropriate to their level of maturity. Treating the few serious offenders fairly but firmly will take the heat off the many who are unfairly labelled as delinquents or worse.