In the past, there was no such term as “juvenile delinquent” or “juvenile delinquency” within the justice system. As frightening as it is to consider, over a hundred years ago, children who committed crimes were thrown into prisons with adults and some children were even sentenced to corporal punishment or even death (Yale.edu, 2000). Reformers of the justice system were the ones who pushed for a distinct court system for the treatment of juveniles, with the underlying notion being that these young people could potentially be helped and reformed. “Central to the concept of juvenile court was the principle of parens patriae. This meant that instead of lawyers fighting to decide guilt or innocence, the court would act as a parent or guardian interested in protecting and helping the child” (yale.edu, 2000). These reforms were novel at the time, and helped to enact changes such as closed hearings for juveniles, informal proceedings and the separation of child criminals from adult criminals in the case of a conviction (yale.edu, 2000). The very first juvenile court was created in Cook County, Illinois in 1899 (yale.edu, 2000). And just as there have been strides in the justice system regarding juveniles, there have also been great strides in the research and general comprehension of how some young people become juveniles. Research conducted on child development have now helped narrow down the overall factors that can influence behavior in this manner, such as the individual, social and community conditions (NRCIM, 2001). “There is general agreement that behavior, including antisocial and delinquent behavior, is the result of a complex interplay of individual biological and genetic factors and environmental factors, starting during fetal development and continuing throughout life” (NRCIM, 2001). Hence, given the nature versus nurture debate, experts now know that while genes have an indelible impact on the biological development of the young person, the environmental input ensures that the biological development occurs at all: nature and nurture both shape behavior (NRCIM, 2001).
Juvenile Delinquency Defined
There are a host of definitions that abound for what qualifies as a juvenile and what standards equate to a juvenile delinquent. A “Juvenile is considered as a child who has not completed a specific age as mentioned in the law of any country and doesn’t bear resemblance as an adult person and who can be made legally answerable for his criminal activities. The juvenile is a child who has alleged violated certain laws which declares his act or omission as an offence” (Chapter 2). It’s important to distinguish that a juvenile and a minor or used in two distinct ways: a juvenile is a person who has committed a crime, a minor is term used to describe the overall legal capacity of a person (Chapter 2). In America the states can use their own discretion to determine what age makes someone a juvenile—for some states it’s the age 16 or younger, and for others it’s 18 or younger. As already mentioned, every state has a separate court for juvenile offenders, a distinction that is mandatory for them to make. Juveniles are generally categorized into two distinct classifications: the delinquent offender and the status offender. A delinquent child is one who has engaged in an act that is considered criminal for adults as decreed under the federal state or local law (yale.edu, 2000). On the other hand, a status offender is considered to be a juvenile who is viewed as unmanageable or beyond the control of the parents or guardians (yale.edu, 2000). It’s important to differentiate that status offenders do not equate with criminal acts: only juveniles are capable of engaging in a status offense as it qualifies as something like skipping school or becoming a runaway (yale.edu, 2000).
In recent times, there’s been more and more interest in understanding juvenile delinquency, where it starts and how it can fester, as juvenile delinquency has become a crucial component in criminology studies in general. “Juveniles have got serious forms of delinquent behavior which may hamper the stability and social command of our society. The deviant behavior of the juveniles has created social disorder and destruction of moral values which is creating an alarming position in organized society” (Chapter 2). Young people are still capable of much destruction.
Examples of Juvenile Delinquency
This essay has already mentioned some of the forms of juvenile delinquency that qualify as status offenses; these are things like running away from home, drinking alcohol while under-aged, or skipping school. However, juvenile delinquency as a whole encapsulates a nuanced range of behavior that can embody a host of things. According to the organization Global Youth Justice, the top offense committed by juveniles is theft and larceny. This offense typically manifests as shoplifting, stealing a bicycle, or stealing from backpacks and lockers. The second type of offense is vandalism; this offense generally manifests as engaging in tagging and graffiti, scribbling on the walls of public bathrooms, keying a car and slashing auto tires (globalyouthjustice.org). The third most common incident involves the possession and consumption of alcohol. The fourth most common offense refers to “disorderly conduct” and this can involve things like fighting in public spaces, using foul language to a teacher, or various forms of indecent exposure, from flashing to mooning (globalyouthjustice.org). The fifth most common form of juvenile delinquency is basic assault or battery (globalyouthjustice.org). This can manifest as in-school bullying or it can be more complex, such as hurting/shoving people or engaging in physical disagreements between parents, or strait up assault (globalyouthjustice.org). It’s important to remember with offenses such as these, the entire juvenile delinquent court system was invented because there was the underlying belief that these young people could be rehabilitated.
Sentencing young people in accordance with adult standards is short-sighted and something that endangers the child toward recidivism. As one scholar Harold S. Hubert wrote, “Children need love, especially when they do not deserve it.” Much juvenile delinquency is a manifestation of problems at home, anxiety or stress or a need for nurturing that the child currently isn’t receiving. It is important to state, that examples of juvenile delinquency do include things like homicide. When young people commit severe crimes such as homicide, it can create a springboard for states to push for harsher sentences for young offenders.
Statistics of Juvenile Delinquency
Many of the statistics in connection with juvenile delinquency are connected to the number of arrests, as the justice department tends to use arrests as the main way to measure crime rates.
(OJJDP Statistical Briefing Book, 2017)
Statistics of juvenile crime are useful in helping to determine patterns of behavior and trends of juvenile issues in terms of a greater social problem. There have been concerns that in the last three or four decades, that the data shows that juveniles are committing more crimes than they did in times past. Some of have argued that young people today are exposed to more dark and provocative forms of media than generations of times past—more violence shows and video games that glamorize violence and that glorify hurting women and bullying others. Many have long argued that these are catalysts for not just a wave of violent juveniles but elements that contribute to a more violent society. “News accounts of serious crimes committed by children and adolescents and criminologists’ warnings of a coming tide of vicious juveniles—sometimes referred to as super-predators… have encouraged a general belief that young people are increasingly violent and uncontrollable and that the response of the juvenile justice system has been inadequate” (nap.edu). Hence the more that the statistics show growing numbers of violent adolescents and teenagers, the more that policymakers fight for harsher penalties for these incidents.
However, while arrest data is valuable in tracking the flow of crime, as the table above demonstrates, there are limitations to relying exclusively on arrest data. Arrest statistics don’t always accurately encapsulate the actual number of people arrest each year, largely because a variable quantity of people may be arrested more than one time annually (nap.edu). Furthermore, for some crimes, the individuals involved don’t necessarily receive arrests; other crimes the parties involved receive multiple arrests (nap.edu). It’s also worth noting that sometimes people are incorrectly arrested, and the individuals taken into custody did not actually commit the crime they were brought in for. “Arrests also depend on a number of factors other than overall crime levels, including policies of particular police agencies, the cooperation of victims, the skill of the perpetrator, and the age, sex, race, and social class of the suspect” (nap.edu). It is accurate to say that in certain parts of the country that have a more serrated history of racism and were part of the segregated south, there might be more arrests of young black males: this might actually have more to do with a corrupt police force, rather than any indication of juvenile crime on the rise. However, when it does come to juvenile crimes, arrest numbers can be misleading, particularly with the presence of serial perpetrators and gang violence: one individual might be responsible for a series of crimes or on the other hand, a group of people in might be the cause of one specific criminal act, such as with members of a gang. Many criminal experts feel that while arrest statistic do a paint a picture of the climate of crime in an area, they are best for capturing the flow of young people into the system. For police officers, the number of specific crimes committed by juveniles is the best way of tracking the rates of juvenile delinquent incidents.
Causes of Juvenile Delinquency
Some experts argue that the reasons a young person engages in a criminal act, can range in specificities as individual as the individual adolescent. This is definitely true, but even so, there are still trends to be made aware of. One major contributing factor to juvenile behavior is violence in the home: children who grow up in homes where there is violence will be more likely to act out violently. The violence doesn’t even have to be inflicted on the child—rather the child can merely observe the violence and that can be enough to cause the child to act out in a violent manner later in life as repeated exposure can normalize violence to the children (Baysinger, 2017). Another big cause of juvenile delinquency is financial issues. Having financial issues where there is an overwhelming feeling that there is no financial stability can set children up for a host of problems later in life, including juvenile delinquent behavior. Financial instability can cause children anxiety issues or motivate them to engage in theft, so they can have things that other families have or as a way of acting out on their resentment against those who have more.
Substance abuse in the home also creates an environment of addiction and chaos and can cause the adults around the child to show their darker more unstable sides. Substance abuse of drugs or alcohol creates an environment that is more conducive to committing crimes or to acting out in ways to support that habit. There are a variety of problems that can manifest within the confines of a family from psychological problems such as mental illness, depression, denial of reality, hoarding of goods to social problems such as gender discrimination and racism (Umar, 2017). Other problems such as shoddy parenting styles can provoke youths to act out in delinquent ways. For example, parents who want to be treated as a “friend” and treat their children as “best friends” can sometimes indirectly encourage delinquency. Parents who don’t offer much of a moral compass to their children, and who don’t teach their children to respect elders, also do their children a disservice and can inadvertently encourage their children to engage in delinquent behavior (Umar, 2017).
Families have a tremendous impact on shaping the lives of behavior of their members. “Many teens who display juvenile delinquency problems come from broken homes or families that have quite a bit of relational problems. Single parents who work full time often lack quality time with their children or spend little time supervising their teens. This can lead to young people seeking attention from other sources such as classmates or peers” (nobullying.com, 2015). Many young people who bully others or join gangs are seeking the attention and acceptance that they’re not getting at home. Teens from a home where there’s just one single parent working all the time can feel untethered and wish for the sense of belonging that comes with being part of a gang. It’s also important to remember that teens and young people are affected by peer pressure: peer pressure is an enormous force that takes a tremendous amount of courage and self-esteem to stand up to. When a child comes from a broken home, or from a family where there are other circumstances present that undermine the overall stability, it becomes even more difficult for the child to stand up to peer pressure. Peer pressure, in such cases, can feel like an insurmountable obstacle or like an obligation that the youth must acquiesce to.
Programs for Juvenile Delinquency
Given the fact that the Juvenile Justice system is slammed with youths, there has been an even greater call for effective programs to offer treatment and rehabilitation to young offenders. For example, the Los Angeles County Probation Department’s Social Learning Model (SLM) is a home-centered program focusing on addressing the needs of youths that are considered high-risk as well as youths who are already involved in gangs or who are on probation (Underwood et al., 2006). “The SLM provides a standardized approach to the method of delivery for treatment. The SLM is designed to positively impact thinking patterns, cognitions, social skills, violent behaviors, and youth and family engagement, all within the context of cultural competency” (Underwood et al., 2006). One of the keys to this program’s overall effectiveness is that it is family centered and incorporates a range of cultural competencies and human relational methods. It is guided by a framework that is designed to motivate the youth to become more involved in school and to participate in more successful problem-solving techniques.
A comparable program that is equally successful is the Family Integrated Transitions (FIT), which is a form of intensive treatment practice (Underwood et al., 2006). “An essential component to FIT is the integration of family in the treatment of the juvenile. A juvenile must be under the age of 17 ½ and be placed under supervision for at least four months after release in order to be eligible for FIT’s services” (Underwood et al., 2006). One of the really effective aspects of this program is it’s timing: youths have to enroll in the program for around half of a year after their release from an institution, in order to ease with that transition.
Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act
The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) are composed of four main pillars. The first pillar revolves around the deinstitutionalization of status offenders (DSO). A youth shouldn’t enter the justice system because of truancy: such a thing is representative of a biased system. The second pillar requires that juveniles be taken out of all adult jails and detention facilities (Juvjustice.org). Jails, prisons and all comparable facilities are scary places for a young offender and their encounters with adult offenders there could be traumatic and deeply scarring. The third pillar specifies a “sight and sound separation” so that young offenders are never detained or confined with any adult offenders, ever—as such contact could lead to severe trauma (juvjustice.org). The final pillar refers to the disproportionate minority contact: members of minority groups come into contact with the juvenile justice system more often their white counterparts: this is an injustice and prejudice of the system that needs to stop
Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency
Proactive effort is key to preventing juvenile delinquency. Programs need to be expanded to create greater strengths within the family unit, so that families are more resilient and can enhance their own nurturing and protective mechanisms (crimesolutions.gov). One such program, referred to as “Adults in the Making” seeks to do exactly that. There needs to be more outreach done for at-risk youths who already have the lack of familial infrastructure that prevents delinquent behavior. Those youths need to be involved in mentoring relationships and meaningful activities to give them something to care about other than the toxic masculinity inherent in gangs.
Juvenile delinquent behavior is often the reaction to a range of complex problems within society. Many of these issues are connected to the decay of the family unit. It is important to remember that young offenders can be rehabilitated to productive members of society. More crucial is to have actionable programs in place in at-risk communities that are able to nip such behaviors in the bud.
Baysinger, R. (2017, April 10). Contributing Factors To Juvenile Delinquency | Baysinger Law. Retrieved from https://baysingerlaw.com/2017/04/contributing-factors-juvenile-delinquency/
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Underwood, L. A., von Dresner, K. S., & Phillips, A. L. (2006). Community treatment programs for juveniles: A best-evidence summary. International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy, 2(2), 286-304. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0100783
Yale.edu. (2000). 00.02.05: Juvenile Delinquency: Cause and Effect. Retrieved from http://teachersinstitute.yale.edu/curriculum/units/2000/2/00.02.05.x.html