Juvenile delinquency, also known as “juvenile offending“, is the act of participating in unlawful behavior as a minor or individual younger than the statutory age of majority. For example, in the United States of America, a juvenile delinquent is a person who is typically below 18 (17 in the states of Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Texas, and Wisconsin) years of age and commits an act that otherwise would have been charged as a crime if they were an adult. Juvenile crimes can range from status offenses (such as underage smoking/drinking) to property crimes and violent crimes.
Some scholars have found an increase in arrests for youth and have concluded that this may reflect more aggressive criminal justice and zero-tolerance policies rather than changes in youth behavior. Youth violence rates in the United States have dropped to approximately 12% of peak rates in 1993 according to official US government statistics, suggesting that most juvenile offending is non-violent. Many delinquent acts can be attributed to environmental factors such as family behavior or peer influence. One contributing factor that has gained attention in recent years is the school to prison pipeline. The focus on punitive punishment has been seen to correlate with juvenile delinquency rates. Some have suggested shifting from zero tolerance policies to restorative justice approaches.
Juvenile detention centers, courts, and electronic monitoring are common structures of the juvenile legal system. Juvenile courts are in place to address offenses for minors as civil rather than criminal cases in most instances. The frequency of use and structure of these courts in the United States varies by state. Depending on the type and severity of the offense committed, it is possible for people under 18 to be charged and treated as adults.
Juvenile delinquency, or offending, is often separated into three categories:
- delinquency, crimes committed by minors, which are dealt with by the juvenile courts and justice system;
- criminal behavior, crimes dealt with by the criminal justice system;
- status offenses, offenses that are only classified as such because only a minor can commit them. One example of this is possession of alcohol by a minor. These offenses are also dealt with by the juvenile courts.
Currently, there is not an agency whose jurisdiction is tracking worldwide juvenile delinquency but UNICEF estimates that over one million children are in some type of detention globally. Many countries do not keep records of the amount of delinquent or detained minors but of the ones that do, the United States has the highest number of juvenile delinquency cases. In the United States, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention compiles data concerning trends in juvenile delinquency. According to their most recent publication, 7 in 1000 juveniles in the US committed a serious crime in 2016. A serious crime is defined by the US Department of Justice as one of the following eight offenses: murder and non-negligent homicide, rape (legacy & revised), robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, motor vehicle theft, larceny-theft, and arson. According to research compiled by James Howell in 2009, the arrest rate for juveniles has been dropping consistently since its peak in 1994. Of the cases for juvenile delinquency that make it through the court system, probation is the most common consequence and males account for over 70% of the caseloads.
According to developmental research by Moffitt (2006), there are two different types of offenders that emerge in adolescence. The first is an age-specific offender, referred to as the adolescence-limited offender, for whom juvenile offending or delinquency begins and ends during their period of adolescence. Moffitt argues that most teenagers tend to show some form of antisocial or delinquent behavior during adolescence, it is therefore important to account for these behaviors in childhood in order to determine whether they will be adolescence-limited offenders or something more long-term. The other type of offender is the repeat offender, referred to as the life-course-persistent offender, who begins offending or showing antisocial/aggressive behavior in adolescence (or even in childhood) and continues into adulthood.
Most of the influencing factors for juvenile delinquency tend to be caused by a mix of both genetic and environmental factors. According to Laurence Steinberg’s book Adolescence, the two largest predictors of juvenile delinquency are parenting style and peer group association. Additional factors that may lead a teenager into juvenile delinquency include poor or low socioeconomic status, poor school readiness/performance and/or failure and peer rejection. Delinquent activity, especially the involvement in youth gangs, may also be caused by a desire for protection against violence or financial hardship. Juvenile offenders can view delinquent activity as a means of gaining access to resources to protect against such threats. Research by Carrie Dabb indicates that even changes in the weather can increase the likelihood of children exhibiting deviant behavior.
Family factors that may have an influence on offending include: the level of parental supervision, the way parents discipline a child, parental conflict or separation, criminal activity by parents or siblings, parental abuse or neglect, and the quality of the parent-child relationship. As mentioned above, parenting style is one of the largest predictors of juvenile delinquency. There are 4 categories of parenting styles that describe the attitudes and behaviors that parents express while raising their children.
- Authoritative parenting is characterized by warmth and support in addition to discipline.
- Indulgent parenting is characterized by warmth and regard towards their children but lack structure and discipline.
- Authoritarian parenting is characterized by high discipline without the warmth thus leading to often hostile demeanor and harsh correction
- Neglectful parenting is both non responsive and non demanding. The child is not engaged either affectionately or disciplinary by the parent.
According to research done by Laura E. Berk, the style of parenting that would be most beneficial for a child, based on studies conducted by Diana Baumrind(1971) is the authoritative child-rearing style because it combines acceptance with discipline to render healthy development for the child.
As concluded in Steinberg’s Adolescence, children brought up by single parents are more likely to live in poverty and engage in delinquent behavior than those who live with both parents. However, according to research done by Graham and Bowling, once the attachment a child feels towards their parent(s) and the level of parental supervision are taken into account, children in single-parent families are no more likely to offend than others. It was seen that when a child has low parental supervision they are much more likely to offend. Negative peer group association is more likely when adolescents are left unsupervised. A lack of supervision is also connected to poor relationships between children and parents. Children who are often in conflict with their parents may be less willing to discuss their activities with them. The conflict between a child’s parents is also much more closely linked to offending than being raised by a lone parent.
Adolescents with siblings who have committed crimes are more likely to be influenced by their siblings and become delinquent if the sibling is older, of the same sex/gender, and maintains a good relationship with the child. Cases where a younger criminal sibling influences an older one are rare. An aggressive more hostile sibling is less likely to influence a younger sibling in the direction of delinquency, if anything, the more strained the relationship between the siblings, the less they will want to influence each other.
Peer rejection in childhood is also a large predictor of juvenile delinquency. This rejection can affect the child’s ability to be socialized properly and often leads them to gravitate towards anti-social peer groups. Association with anti-social groups often leads to the promotion of violent, aggressive, and deviant behavior. Robert Vargas’s “Being in ‘Bad’ Company,” explains that adolescents who can choose between groups of friends are less susceptible to peer influence that could lead them to commit illegal acts. Aggressive adolescents who have been rejected by peers are also more likely to have a “hostile attribution bias”, which leads people to interpret the actions of others (whether they be hostile or not) as purposefully hostile and aggressive towards them. This often leads to an impulsive and aggressive reaction.
Conformity plays a significant role in the vast impact that peer group influence has on an individual. Aronson, Wilson, & Akert (2013) point to the research experiment conducted by Solomon Asch (1956), to ascertain whether a group could influence an individual’s behavior. The experiment was executed by asking a participant to determine which line in the set of 3 lines matched the length of an original line. Confederates knew the purpose of the experiment and were directed to answer the questions incorrectly during certain phases of the experiment. These confederates answered the question before the participant. The confederates answered the first few questions correctly, as did the participant. Eventually, all of the confederates started to answer incorrectly. The purpose of the experiment was to see if the group would influence the participant to answer incorrectly. Asch found that seventy-six percent of the participants conformed and answered incorrectly when influenced by the group. According to these findings, it was concluded that a peer group that is involved in deviant behavior can influence an adolescent to engage in similar activities. Once the adolescent becomes part of the group, they will be susceptible to groupthink.
School to prison pipeline
A common contributor to juvenile delinquency rates is a phenomenon referred to as the school to prison pipeline. In recent years, school disciplinary measures have become increasingly policed. In fact, 67% of high school students attend schools with police officers. This rise in police presence is often attributed to the implementation of zero-tolerance policies. Based on the “broken windows” theory of criminology and the Gun-Free Schools Act, zero-tolerance policies stress the use of specific, consistent, and harsh punishment to deal with in-school infractions. Often measures such as suspension or expulsion are assigned to students who are deviant regardless of the reason or past disciplinary history. This use of punishment often has been linked with increasing high school dropout rates and future arrests. It was found in a 2018 study that students who received a suspension were less likely to graduate and more likely to be arrested or on probation. As stated in research by Matthew Theriot, the increased police presence in the school and the use of tougher punishment methods leads student actions to be criminalized and in turn referred to juvenile justice systems.
The Center on Youth Justice at the Vera Institute of Justice found that “for similar students attending similar schools, a single suspension or expulsion doubles the risk that a student will repeat a grade. Being retained a grade, especially while in middle or high school, is one of the strongest predictors of dropping out. In a national longitudinal study, it was reported that youth with a prior suspension were 68% more likely to drop out of school.
The School to Prison Pipeline disproportionately affects minority students. According to data compiled by the United States Government Accountability Office, 39% of students who received a suspension in the 2013-14 school year were Black, even though Black students accounted for only about 15% of public school students. This over-representation applied to both boys and girls of African descent. Compared to White students, black students were expelled or suspended 3 times as frequently.
Juvenile Delinquency, is the unlawful activities by minors in their teen or pre-teen years. It is influenced by four main risk factors namely; personality, background, state of mind, and drugs.
Gender is another risk factor in regards to influencing delinquent behavior. The predictors of different types of delinquency vary across females and males for various reasons, but a common underlying reason for this is socialization. Different predictors of delinquency emerge when analyzing distinct offending types across gender, but overall it is evident that males commit more crimes than females. Across all offenses, females are less likely to be involved in delinquent acts than males. Females not only commit fewer offenses, but they also commit less serious offenses.
Socialization plays a key role in the gender gap in delinquency because male and female juveniles are often socialized differently. Girls’ and boys’ experiences are heavily mediated by gender, which alters their interactions in society. Males and females are differently controlled and bonded, suggesting that they will not make the same choices and may follow different paths of delinquency. Social bonds are important for both males and females, but different aspects of the bond are relevant for each gender. The degree of involvement in social settings is a significant predictor of male’s violent delinquency but is not significant for females. Males tend to be more connected with their peer relationships which in effect has a stronger influence on their behavior. Association with delinquent peers is one of the strongest correlates of juvenile delinquency, and much of the gender gap can be accounted for by the fact that males are more likely to have friends that support delinquent behavior. Delinquent peers are positively and significantly related to delinquency in males but delinquent peers are negatively and insignificantly related to delinquency for females. As for females, familial functioning relationships have been shown to be more important. Female juveniles tend to be more strongly connected with their families, the disconnect or the lack of socialization between their family members can significantly predict their likelihood of committing crimes as juveniles and even as adults. When the family is disrupted, females are more likely to engage in delinquent behavior than males. Boys, however, tend to be less connected to their families and are not as affected by these relationships. When it comes to minor offenses such as fighting, vandalism, shoplifting, and the carrying of weapons, differences in gender are limited because they are most common among both males as well as females. Elements of the social bond, social disorganization, routine activities, opportunity, and attitudes towards violence are also related to delinquent behavior among both males and females.
Individual psychological or behavioral risk factors that may make offending more likely include low intelligence, impulsiveness or the inability to delay gratification, aggression, lack of empathy, and restlessness. Other risk factors that may be evident during childhood and adolescence include aggressive or troublesome behavior, language delays or impairments, lack of emotional control (learning to control one’s anger), and cruelty to animals.
Children with low intelligence are more likely to do badly in school. This may increase the chances of offending because low educational attainment, a low attachment to school, and low educational aspirations are all risk factors for offending in themselves. Children who perform poorly at school are also more likely to be truant, and the status offense of truancy is linked to further offending.
Impulsiveness is seen by some as the key aspect of a child’s personality that predicts offending. However, it is not clear whether these aspects of personality are a result of “deficits in the executive functions of the brain“ or a result of parental influences or other social factors. In any event, studies of adolescent development show that teenagers are more prone to risk-taking, which may explain the high disproportionate rate of offending among adolescents.
Juvenile delinquents are often diagnosed with different disorders. Around six to sixteen percent of male teens and two to nine percent of female teens have a conduct disorder. These can vary from oppositional-defiant disorder, which is not necessarily aggressive, to antisocial personality disorder, often diagnosed among psychopaths. A conduct disorder can develop during childhood and then manifest itself during adolescence.
Juvenile delinquents who have recurring encounters with the criminal justice system, or in other words those who are life-course-persistent offenders, are sometimes diagnosed with conduct disorders because they show a continuous disregard for their own and others’ safety and/or property. Once the juvenile continues to exhibit the same behavioral patterns and turns eighteen he is then at risk of being diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder and much more prone to become a serious criminal offender. One of the main components used in diagnosing an adult with antisocial personality disorder consists of presenting a documented history of conduct disorder before the age of 15. These two personality disorders are analogous in their erratic and aggressive behavior. This is why habitual juvenile offenders diagnosed with conduct disorder are likely to exhibit signs of antisocial personality disorder early in life and then as they mature. Sometimes these juveniles reach maturation and they develop into career criminals or life-course-persistent offenders. “Career criminals begin committing antisocial behavior before entering grade school and are versatile in that they engage in an array of destructive behaviors, offend at exceedingly high rates, and are less likely to quit committing a crime as they age.”
Quantitative research was completed on 9,945 juvenile male offenders between the ages of 10 and 18 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the 1970s. The longitudinal birth cohort was used to examine a trend among a small percentage of career criminals who accounted for the largest percentage of crime activity. The trend exhibited a new phenomenon among habitual offenders. The phenomenon indicated that only 6% of the youth qualified under their definition of a habitual offender (known today as life-course-persistent offenders, or career criminals) and yet were responsible for 52% of the delinquency within the entire study. The same 6% of chronic offenders accounted for 71% of the murders and 69% of the aggravated assaults. This phenomenon was later researched among an adult population in 1977 and resulted in similar findings. S. A. Mednick did a birth cohort of 30,000 males and found that 1% of the males were responsible for more than half of the criminal activity. The habitual crime behavior found among juveniles is similar to that of adults. As stated before most life-course-persistent offenders begin exhibiting antisocial, violent, and/or delinquent behavior, prior to adolescence. Therefore, while there is a high rate of juvenile delinquency, it is the small percentage of life-course-persistent, career criminals that are responsible for most of the violent crimes.
There are a multitude of different theories on the causes of crime, most, if not all, of which are applicable to the causes of juvenile delinquency.
Classical criminology stresses that the causes of crime lie within individual offenders, rather than in their external environment. For classicists, offenders are motivated by rationalself-interest, and the importance of free will and personal responsibility is emphasized.Rational choice theory is the clearest example of that idea. Delinquency is one of the major factors motivated by rational choice.
Current positivist approaches generally focus on the culture. A type of criminological theory attributing variation in crime and delinquency over time and among territories to the absence or breakdown of communal institutions (such as family, school, church, and social groups) and communal relationships that traditionally encouraged cooperative relationships among people.
Strain theory is associated mainly with the work of Robert K. Merton, who felt that there are institutionalized paths to success in society. Strain theory holds that crime is caused by the difficulty for those in poverty have to achieve socially-valued goals by legitimate means. Since those with, for instance, poor educational attainment has difficulty achieving wealth and status by securing well-paid employment, they are more likely to use criminal means to obtain those goals. Merton’s suggests five adaptations to this dilemma:
- Innovation: individuals who accept socially-approved goals but not necessarily the socially-approved means.
- Retreatism: those who reject socially-approved goals and the means for acquiring them.
- Ritualism: those who buy into a system of socially-approved means but lose sight of the goals. Merton believed that drug users are in this category.
- Conformity: those who conform to the system’s means and goals.
- Rebellion: people who negate socially-approved goals and means by creating a new system of acceptable goals and means.
A difficulty with strain theory is that it does not explore why children of low-income families have poor educational attainment in the first place. More importantly, much youth crime does not have an economic motivation. Strain theory fails to explain violent crime, the type of youth crime that causes most anxiety to the public.
Differential association is another theory that deals with young people in a group context and looks at how peer pressure and the existence of gangs could lead them into crime. It suggests young people are motivated to commit crimes by delinquent peers and learn criminal skills from them. The diminished influence of peers after men marry has also been cited as a factor in desisting from offending. There is strong evidence that young people with criminal friends are more likely to commit crimes themselves. However, offenders may prefer to associate with one another, rather than delinquent peers causing someone to start offending. Furthermore, there is the question of how the delinquent peer group initially became delinquent.
Labeling theory is a concept in criminology that aims to explain deviant behavior from the social context, rather than the individual themselves. It is part of interactionism criminology, which states that once young people have been labeled as criminals, they are more likely to offend. The idea is that once labeled as deviant, a young person may accept that role and be more likely to associate with others who have been similarly labeled. Labeling theorists say that male children from poor families are more likely to be labeled deviant, which may partially explain the existence of more working-class young male offenders.
Social control theory proposes that exploiting the process of socialization and social learning builds self-control and can reduce the inclination to indulge in behavior that is recognized as antisocial. These four types of control can help prevent juvenile delinquency:
Direct by which punishment is threatened or applied for wrongful behavior, and compliance is rewarded by parents, family, and authority figures. Internal by which a youth refrains from delinquency through the conscience or superego. Indirect by identification with those who influence behavior, such as because the delinquent act might cause pain and disappointment to parents and others close relationships. Control through needs satisfaction: if all an individual’s needs are met, there is no point in criminal activity.
Delinquency prevention is the broad term for all efforts aimed at preventing youth from becoming involved in criminal, or other antisocial, activity. Prevention services may include activities such as substance abuse education and treatment, family counseling, youth mentoring, parenting education, educational support, and youth sheltering. Increasing availability and use of family planning services, including education and contraceptives helps to reduce unintended pregnancy and unwanted births, which are risk factors for delinquency. It has been noted that often interventions such as peer groups may leave at-risk children worse off then if there had never been an intervention.
In 2020 a ruling abolished the death penalty for juveniles in Saudi Arabia. Despite this Mustafa, Hashem al-Darwish was executed in June 2021. He was alleged to have taken part in anti-government demonstrations at the age of 17. al-Darwish had been detained in May 2015 being placed in solitary confinement for years. al-Darwish claimed that he faced brutal torture and beatings and was forced to sign confessions.
One criminal justice approach to juvenile delinquency is through the juvenile court systems. These courts are specifically for minors to be tried in. Sometimes, juvenile offenders are sent to adult prisons. In the United States, children as young as 8 can be tried and convicted as adults. Additionally, the United States was the only recorded country to sentence children as young as 13 to life sentences without parole also known as death in prison sentences. As of 2012, the Supreme Court has declared death in prison sentences unconstitutional for the vast majority of cases involving children. According to the US Department of Justice, about 3,600 children are housed in adult jails.
According to a report released by the Prison Policy Initiative, over 48,000 children are held in juvenile detention centers or prisons in America. The worldwide number is unknown but UNICEF estimates that over 1 million children experience confinement in various countries. Juveniles in youth detention centers are sometimes subject to many of the same punishments as adults, such as solitary confinement, despite a younger age or the presence of disabilities. Due to the influx of minors in detention facilities due to the school-to-prison pipeline, education is increasingly becoming a concern. Children in juvenile detention have a compromised or nonexistent schooling which to a higher number of dropouts and failure to complete secondary education.
Education promotes economic growth, national productivity and innovation, and values of democracy and social cohesion. Prevention through education has been seen to discourage delinquency for minors and help them strengthen the connection and understanding between peers
A well-known intervention treatment is the Scared Straight Treatment. According to research done by Scott Lilienfeld, this type of intervention is often harmful because of juvenile offenders’ vicarious exposure to criminal role models and the possibility of increased resentment in reaction to the confrontational interactions. It has been reasoned that the most efficient interventions are those that not only separate at-risk teens from anti-social peers, and place them instead with pro-social ones, but also simultaneously improve their home environment by training parents with appropriate parenting styles.
In response to the data correlated with the school-to-prison pipeline, some institutions have implemented restorative justice policies. The restorative justice approach emphasizes conflict resolution and non-punitive intervention. Interventions such as hiring more counselors as opposed to security professionals or focusing on talking through problems would be included in a restorative justice approach.
It is also important to note certain works of legislation that have already been published in the United States in response to general prisoner re-entry, extending to juveniles, such as the Second Chance Act (2007) and most recently, the Second Chance Reauthorization Act (2018).
Juvenile reform deals with the vocational programs and educational approach to reducing recidivism rates of juvenile offenders. Most countries in the world legislate processes for juvenile reform and re-entry, some more elaborate and formal than others. In theory, juvenile re-entry is sensitive to the fact that juveniles are young and assumes they are capable of change; it approaches a juvenile offender’s situation and history holistically, evaluating the earlier factors that could lead a juvenile to commit crimes. In practice, this is complicated since juvenile delinquents return home to varying and unpredictable circumstances, including poverty, substance abuse, domestic violence, etc.
In the United States, juvenile reform is split into four main phases:
- The Entry Phase: The youth enters residential placement
- The Placement Phase: Amount of time youth is in the placement facility (whatever that may be)
- The Transitional Phase (re-entry): Act of leaving facility and entering community (from right after exit of facility to right before entering community)
- The Community-based Aftercare Phase: Period of time after youth returns to the community (usually 120-day period right after transitional phase)
An understanding of the factors involved in each of these steps is crucial to creating an effective juvenile reform program. One non-profit identifies the following approaches to juvenile reform:
- Early Intervention: preventing juvenile youth from ever encountering the justice system by implementation of conflict-resolution practices or administrative strategies that aim to teach the child healthy actions to take in difficult situations. It is implemented before any offense is committed and often involves a thorough discussion of what individual issues a child is dealing with.
- Diversion: the placement of youth in programs that redirect youth away from juvenile justice system processing, or programs that divert youth from secure detention in a juvenile justice facility. These programs are most often in attempt to protect juveniles from getting a charge on their record after they have already committed a crime. This can be led through school administration intervention or by law enforcement officers that have been trained in dealing with at-risk youth. These programs are often given to children who have unstable life circumstances and are thus extended aid that will attack the “root problems” rather than further isolate them in society.
- Alternatives to Secure Confinement: a juvenile justice approach that does not require the juvenile’s entry in a “jail-like” facility. Often involves the juvenile’s continued participation in society, but in a modified manner. Such alternatives include home confinement, supervision of a probation officer, community service requirements, and community-based facilities, among others.
- Evidence-Based Practices: the emphasis on encouraging youth participation in programs that have evidence of working. The evaluation of “success” for a program is dependent on multiple factors, such as reduction of recidivism rates, cost-effectiveness, and addressing health problems.
- Diverting Youth Who Commit Status Offenses: programs that address the “root” problems causing a juvenile’s behavior and actions. Such programs are often part of a tiered approach to juvenile justice and reform.
- Funding Community-Based Alternatives on a Large Scale: the supporting of all initiatives in a community that have been proven to help with juvenile betterment and reform. This allows the community to help its own and does not rely on the decisions of the state regarding the needs of juveniles.
While juvenile reform has proved to be an effective and humanizing approach response to juvenile delinquency, it is a very complex area that still has many ongoing debates. For example, many countries around the world are debating the appropriate age of a juvenile, as well as trying to understand whether there are some crimes that are so heinous, they should be exempt from any understanding. Based on these discussions, legislation needs to be consistently updated and considered as social, cultural, and political landscapes change.
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