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Juvenile delinquency refers to criminal acts performed by juveniles. Most legal systems prescribe specific procedures for dealing with juveniles, such as juvenile detention centers. There are a multitude of different theories on the causes of crime, most if not all of which can be applied to the causes of youth crime. Youth crime is an aspect of crime which receives great attention from the news media and politicians. Crime committed by young people has risen since the mid-twentieth century, as have most types of crime. The level and types of youth crime can be used by commentators as an indicator of the general state of morality and law and order in a country, and consequently youth crime can be the source of ‘moral panics[1] Theories on the causes of youth crime can be viewed as particularly important within criminology. This is firstly because crime is committed disproportionately by those aged between fifteen and twenty-five. [2] Secondly, by definition any theories on the causes of crime will focus on youth crime, as adult criminals will have likely started offending when they were young. A Juvenile Delinquent is one who repeatedly commits crime, however these juvenile delinquents could most likely have mental disorders/behavioral issues such as schizophrenia, post traumatic stress disorder or bipolar disorder.

Female delinquency

Male delinquency

Theoretical Perspectives on Juvenile Delinquency

Rational Choice Theory

Classical criminology stresses that causes of crime lie within the individual offender, rather than in their external environment. For classicists, offenders are motivated by rational self-interest, and the importance of free will and personal responsibility is emphasised[1]. Rational choice theory is the clearest example of this approach. It states that people weigh the pros and cons of committing a crime, and offend when the former outweigh the latter. [3] A central deficiency of rational choice theory is that while it may explain when and where people commit crime, it can’t explain very well why people choose to commit crimes in the first place. [2] Neither can it explain differences between individuals and groups in their propensity to commit crimes. James Q. Wilson said the conscience and self-control of a potential young offender must be taken into account, and that these attributes are formed by parental and societal conditioning. [1] Rational choice does not explain why crime should be committed disproportionately by young people, males, city dwellers, and the poor. (Walklate: 2003 p.2)[2] It also ignores the influence a young persons peers can have on them, and the fact that some youths may be less able to accurately foresee the consequences of their actions than others. [2] Rational choice theory does not take into account the proven correlations between certain social circumstances and individuals’ personalities, and the propensity to commit crime. [4]

Social disorganization theory

Current positivist approaches generally focus on the cultural and socio-economic environment to which a young person has been exposed, and how these conditions may be criminogenic. [2] These theories de-emphasise individual agency, and stress criminal behaviour is largely determined by factors outside a young person's control. [1] Social ecology or social disorganisation theory says crime is generated by the breakdown of traditional values and norms. [1] This was most likely to occur in urban areas with transient populations and high levels of migration, which would produce the breakdown of family relationships and community, competing values, and increasing impersonality.[2]

Strain theory

Strain Theory is associated mainly with the work of Robert Merton. He felt that there are institutionalized paths to success in society. Strain theory holds that crime is caused by the difficulty those in poverty have in achieving socially valued goals by legitimate means. [1] As those with, for instance, poor educational attainment have difficulty achieving wealth and status by securing well paid employment, they are more likely to use criminal means to obtain these goals. [4] Merton's suggests five adaptations to this dilemma:

  1. Innovation: individuals who accept socially approved goals, but not necessarily the socially approved means.
  2. Retreatism: those who reject socially approved goals and the means for acquiring them.
  3. 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.
  4. Conformity: those who conform to the system's means and goals.
  5. 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 would have poor educational attainment in the first place. More importantly is the fact that much youth crime does not have an economic motivation. Strain theory fails to explain violent crime, the type of youth crime which causes most anxiety to the public.

Subcultural theory

Related to strain theory is subcultural theory. The inability of youths to achieve socially valued status and goals results in groups of young people forming deviant or delinquent subcultures, which have their own values and norms. (Eadie & Morley: 2003 p.552) Within these groups criminal behaviour may actually be valued, and increase a youth’s status. (Walklate: 2003 p.22) The notion of delinquent subcultures is relevant for crimes that are not economically motivated. Male gang members could be argued to have their own values, such as respect for fighting ability and daring. However it is not clear how different this makes them from ‘ordinary’ non-lawbreaking young men. Furthermore there is no explanation of why people unable to achieve socially valued goals should necessarily choose criminal substitutes. Subcultural theories have been criticised for making too sharp a distinction between what is deviant and what is ‘normal’. (Brown: 1998 p.23) There are also doubts about whether young people consciously reject mainstream values. (Brown: 1998 p.23)

Differential association

The theory of Differential association also 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 it may be the case that offenders 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 became delinquent initially.

Labeling theory

Labeling theory states that once young people have been labeled as criminal they are more likely to offend. (Eadie & Morley: 2003 p.552) The idea is that once labelled as deviant a young person may accept that role, and be more likely to associate with others who have been similarly labelled. (Eadie & Morley: 2003 p.552) Labelling theorists say that male children from poor families are more likely to be labelled deviant, and that this may partially explain why there are more lower-class young male offenders. (Walklate: 2003 p. 24)

Juvenile delinquency as a male phenomenon

Youth crime is disproportionately[5], committed by young men. Feminist theorists and others have examined why this is the case. (Eadie & Morley: 2003 p.553) One suggestion is that ideas of masculinity may make young men more likely to offend. Being tough, powerful, aggressive, daring and competitive may be a way of young men expressing their masculinity. (Brown: 1998 p.109) Acting out these ideals may make young men more likely to engage in antisocial and criminal behaviour. (Walklate: 2003 p. 83) Alternatively, rather than young men acting as they do because of societal pressure to conform to masculine ideals; young men may actually be naturally more aggressive, daring etc. As well as biological or psychological factors, the way young men are treated by their parents may make them more susceptible to offending. (Walklate: 2003 p. 35) According to a study led by Florida State University criminologist Kevin M. Beaver, adolescent males who possess a certain type of variation in a specific gene are more likely to flock to delinquent peers. The study, which appears in the September 2008 issue of the Journal of Genetic Psychology, is the first to establish a statistically significant association between an affinity for antisocial peer groups and a particular variation (called the 10-repeat allele) of the dopamine transporter gene (DAT1).[6]

Learning & Social Learning Theory Model

See Behavior analysis of child development for an extensive microsocial model of the development of antisocial behavior. This model looks at the development of antisocal behavior as a development of the interaction of person and environment over successive encounters. It looks at the function of behavior and the persons success of acheiving that function. It looks at the distribution of the payoff over time in moment to moment interaction- intitally in the family relationship and later in peer relationships.

Risk factors

Individual risk factors

Individual psychological or behavioural risk factors that may make offending more likely include intelligence, impulsiveness or the inability to delay gratification, aggression, empathy, and restlessness. (Farrington: 2002) Children with low intelligence are likely to do worse 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. (Walklate: 2003 p. 2) Children who perform poorly at school are also more likely to truant, which is also linked to offending. (Farrington: 2002 p.682) If strain theory or subcultural theory are valid poor educational attainment could lead to crime as children were unable to attain wealth and status legally. However it must be born in mind that defining and measuring intelligence is troublesome. Young males are especially likely to be impulsive which could mean they disregard the long-term consequences of their actions, have a lack of self-control, and are unable to postpone immediate gratification. This may explain why they disproportionately offend. (Farrington: 2002 p.682) (Walklate: 2003 p. 36) Impulsiveness is seen by some as the key aspect of a child's personality that predicts offending. (Farrington: 2002 p.682) However is not clear whether these aspects of personality are a result of “deficits in the executive functions of the brain”, (Farrington: 2002 p.667) or a result of parental influences or other social factors. (Graham & Bowling: 1995 p.32)

Family environment

Family factors which may have an influence on offending include; the level of parental supervision, the way parents discipline a child, parental conflict or separation, criminal parents or siblings, parental abuse or neglect, and the quality of the parent-child relationship (Graham & Bowling: 1995 p.33) Children brought up by lone parents are more likely to start offending than those who live with two natural parents, however 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 then others. (Graham & Bowling: 1995 p.35) Conflict between a child's parents is also much more closely linked to offending than being raised by a lone parent. (Walklate: 2003 p. 106) If a child has low parental supervision they are much more likely to offend. (Graham & Bowling: 1995) Many studies have found a strong correlation between a lack of supervision and offending, and it appears to be the most important family influence on offending. (Farrington: 2002 p.610) (Graham & Bowling: 1995 p.38) When parents commonly do not know where their children are, what their activities are, or who their friends are, children are more likely to truant from school and have delinquent friends, each of which are linked to offending. (Graham & Bowling: 1995 p.45,46) A lack of supervision is connected to poor relationships between children and parents, as children who are often in conflict with their parents may be less willing to discuss their activities with them. (Graham & Bowling: 1995 p.37) Children with a weak attachment to their parents are more likely to offend. (Graham & Bowling: 1995 p.37)

Delinquency prevention

Delinquency Prevention is the broad term for all efforts aimed at preventing youth from becoming involved in criminal, or other antisocial, activity. Increasingly, governments are recognizing the importance of allocating resources for the prevention of delinquency. Because it is often difficult for states to provide the fiscal resources necessary for good prevention, organizations, communities, and governments are working more in collaboration with each other to prevent juvenile delinquency.

With the development of delinquency in youth being influenced by numerous factors, prevention efforts are comprehensive in scope. Prevention services include activities such as substance abuse education and treatment, family counseling, youth mentoring, parenting education, educational support, and youth sheltering.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Eadie, T. & Morley, R. (2003) ‘Crime, Justice and Punishment’ in Baldock, J. et al (eds) Social Policy (3 rd edn.) Oxford: Oxford University Press
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Walklate, S (2003) Understanding Criminology – Current Theoretical Debates, 2nd edition, Maidenhead: Open University Press.
  3. Farrington, D.P. (2002) ‘Developmental criminology and risk-focused prevention’ in M. Maguire et al (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Criminology (3rd edn.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Brown, S (1998) Understanding Youth and Crime (Listening to youth?), Buckingham: Open University Press.
  5. Violence by Teenage Girls: Trends and Context, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice
  6. Study Reveals Specific Gene in Adolescent Men with Delinquent Peers Newswise, Retrieved on October 1, 2008.
  • Brown, S. (1998) Understanding Youth and Crime (Listening to youth?), Buckingham: Open University Press.
  • Farrington, D.P. (2002) ‘Developmental criminology and risk-focused prevention’ in M. Maguire et al (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Criminology (3rd edn.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Graham, J. & Bowling, B. (1995) Young People and Crime, Home Office Research Study No. 145, London: Home Office.
  • Walklate, S. (2003) Understanding Criminology – Current Theoretical Debates, 2nd edition, Maidenhead: Open University Press.
  • Eadie, T. & Morley, R. (2003) ‘Crime, Justice and Punishment’ in Baldock, J. et al (eds) Social Policy (3 rd edn.). Oxford: Oxford University Press


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