When we hear about juvenile delinquency, many of us immediately think of poverty-stricken urban areas and gangs. However, as practice shows, many young people all over the world are facing devastating life events and traumas, no matter where they live – in urban or rural areas. Both in poor and rich families, in cities and in suburbs, in developed and in developing countries children can experience stress, confusion or depression because of parents’ divorce, fight with friends or problems at school. Most teenagers find a way to deal with their feelings, however, there are still many disturbed young people at risk of committing crimes or using drugs. Unfortunately, their numbers are rising and the problem of juvenile delinquency is becoming more serious, complex, and universal.
Juvenile delinquency in the United States
In the United States, nearly 72% of all deaths among young people aged 10-24 are caused by injuries from four causes:
- motor vehicle crashes (30%),
- unintentional injuries (15%),
- homicide (15%), and
- suicide (12%). (CDC, 2008)
Delinquent adolescent behavior is highly connected with all of these injuries (including physical fights, carrying weapons and not using seatbelts). As statistics show, in 2009, 32% of high school students had been in a physical fight throughout the year, 18% had carried a weapon in the last month, and 10% never or rarely wore a seat belt. (CDC, 2010)
Juvenile delinquency and gender
While girls are at greater risk of sexual assault, boys are at greater risk of physical assault and are more likely to commit delinquent acts and have multiple arrests (Finkelhor & Omrod, 2000; Kalb & Williams, 2003). In 2003, there were 643,000 arrests for females under the age of 18. They accounted for 32% of the juvenile arrests. Between 1980 and 2003, juvenile arrest for simple assault increased 269% for the female population (Snyder, 2005). Young males are still more likely to commit crimes than females, however, the gap between boys and girls is not as big as it used to be.
Juvenile delinquency and race
Race bias in justice system has been widely publicized. At the same time, there is evidence that minorities are more likely to commit crimes than non-minorities. And it is not surprising: Many black teenagers have to live in the poorest areas of the US with high crime rates. The issue of race and delinquency is quite contradictory and different experts come to a completely different conclusion. Some studies show that police is more likely to convict and courts are more likely to punish black than white kids. There is evidence, that police is more likely to informally handle problems with white kids, for example, they can be taken home to their parents, and black kids are more likely to be arrested for the same behavior. (Siegel & Welsh, 2009) Other studies come to a conclusion that the gap between white and black teens delinquency is real and is due to immigration status, living conditions, family stability, reading ability, impulsivity, and neighborhood situation (Sampson, Raudenbush & Earls, 1999).
Theories of juvenile delinquency
In order to find a way to fight juvenile delinquency, many experts tried to answer the questions what causes violent behavior among adolescents. As a result, a number of theories have emerged, which can be grouped in three broad categories:
- Individual theories
– Rational choice theory
– Trait theories
– Biosocial theory
– Evolutionary theory
– Psychodynamic theory
– Behavioral theory
– Cognitive theory
- Social process theories
– Social disorganization theory
– Strain theory
– Cultural deviance theory
– Social process theories
– Social learning theories
– Social control theory
– Social reaction theory
– Social conflict theory
- Developmental theories
– Life-course theory
– Latent trait theories (Siegel & Welsh, 2005)
Individual theories tend to focus on what is wrong with the people committing the illegal acts and are based on biological and psychological explanations of delinquency. Some experts went as far as saying that criminals inherit certain traits are inherited. (Rafter 2004)
There is a contrary opinion that criminal traits are not in any way in-born but rather learned throughout life. For example, it is possible that inadequate socialization and weak family bonds lead to delinquency (Gottfredson and Hirschi, 1990). According to Sampson and Laub (1993), certain individual traits (psychopathic personality, learning disability, etc.) combined with negative social conditions (delinquent companions, weakened social bonds, low self-concept, etc.) can lead to delinquency unless social conditions improve.
Social process theories tend to focus less on what a person is and more on what a person does. For example, delinquent behavior can be a result of association with delinquent peers. For example, researchers generally conclude that most acts of delinquency are committed in group or gang contexts (Shoemaker, 2005).
Some experts believe that adolescents are more likely to commit delinquent acts if they have been victims of crimes before or have experienced trauma and developed PTSD (Loeber, Kalb and Huizinga, 2001). There is also a view supported by evidence, that teenagers are more likely to commit a crime if they grow up in areas with high crime rates or have witnessed crimes.
In my opinion, no single factor is solely responsible for juvenile delinquency, but rather a combination of factors. As Benson (2001) put it, “The fact that different offending trajectories exist is no longer seriously debated.” Personal traits and social conditions such as family atmosphere, peers, school, and other societal institutions have a strong influence on the behavior of teenagers. Therefore, in order to reduce violence, a long-term approach combining efforts of family, school, and society is needed. The efforts should focus not solely on punishment, but rather on education and prevention.
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