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
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".
While 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
Juvenile Delinquency: A Brief
I. The harsh
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.
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.
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
beginning of Childhood.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
huge influx of people to these urban areas overwhelmed society. The
factories could not keep up, and unemployment became a factor. Poverty
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
There are also various structural theories
that can put juvenile delinquency in a context of better understanding.
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).
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
Strain theorists share a similar
perspective with Structural Functionalists. The Strain
commit crimes have basically the same values
else. Primarily among these values is an emphasis
achievement and success. According to this theory, the
the achievement of success are greatly restricted
for people in
the lower class. Thus, they are faced with a cruel
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.
The conflict perspective underlies the basis for understanding
strain theory as it relates to juvenile delinquency. Tomovic cites
Kinloch to make clear the conflict perspective:
is a function of the ongoing dialectic between
humanity attempts to meet its primary needs on an
changing basis. Sociology, according to this view,
historical study of society's changing economic
structure as the
basis of social conflict. Finally, 'society' is but a
equilibrium of this dialectic at particular stages of its
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
is somewhat of a "if the shoe fits, wear it" theory.
Labeling theory suggests that:
Social groups make
deviance by making rules whose infractions
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
"offender." The deviant is one to whom that label has
deviant behavior is the behavior that people so label
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
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
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".
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.
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
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.
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.
rates were [are] consistently higher in inner city,
neighborhoods. Looking at delinquency rates over
found a very interesting thing. The delinquency rates
neighborhoods remained remarkably constant over time even
population of the neighborhood often completely
A neighborhood might be Italian for a number of years,
to mainly Irish, and then gradually change until it was
completely African American, yet the delinquency rate
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.
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
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
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.