The term juvenile delinquency is used to refer to the illegal actions made by young people, also referred to as juveniles. This issue is drawing attention, and has become a social problem because it is alarming that these individuals can perform criminal acts at a very young age. This issue has also been a subject of debates if minors can be held liable to their actions
Complexity of juvenile delinquency
Young people who are under the age of eighteen are covered by juvenile delinquency. The crimes they may have committed can be either violent or non-violent. There are many factors which are considered to affect the youth to commit juvenile crimes. These factors maybe biological or psychological, above all, it can be best described by factors in the environment which is referred to as social factors.
These social causes regarding juvenile delinquency are far more complex than what criminal and social analysts have speculated. Some experts perceived juvenile delinquency as an individual function while others see it as a function inclusive of the society.
The theories raised by theorists may or may not be applicable to certain cases of juvenile delinquency. The reasons which may have caused a juvenile delinquent cannot be explained and justified by a single theory; this is because it is a diverse topic like other social problems like crimes. The factors which cause a juvenile to become delinquent are varied and numerous; this is also true to their definitions. For some, they perceived delinquency as a behavior which deviates or differ from the legal and cultural standard. In his book Sociology,
Calhoun and others (1989) define social deviance as:
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.
It means that social deviance is relative. The meaning of an action, if it is deviant or not, will depend on the existing social norms in a particular society, an action can be considered deviant in a society but can be considered normal in another. Another definition of delinquency came from Breckenridge. This definition was cited by Tomovic (1979). According to Breckenridge, delinquency arises from the environment in which a person experiences social and personal disorganization. This environment further results to problems in behaviors. He also added that it is the result of vibrant social processes, which involves a number of variables and a malfunction of both personal and social organization and control. It is therefore and indication of social weaknesses.
Crimes versus Delinquency
Based from definitions of delinquency, it can be observed that crimes are the result of the absence of strong constructive social relationships. Crimes and delinquency are not the same. They are different from each other. Delinquency or deviance must be distinguished from crimes. Crime is an action which violates the law, it is illegal. On the other hand, delinquency refers to actions which simply violate cultural or social rules and standards. Deviance and delinquency is relative.
Theories on delinquency and crimes
There is numerous theories set forth in order to fully explain the causes of juvenile delinquencies. It is logical to say that juvenile delinquency is caused by complexities of different factors like psychological and social issues (Cromwell, 1978). Some studies even discovered that this issue is founded on disorganized family backgrounds in most cases of juvenile delinquency. There are different perspectives in which the issue of juvenile delinquency can be explained. Theories have been developed by social scientists in order to analyze the issue further.
The Differential Association theory which is also called the Social learning theory suggests that crimes are behaviors which are learned. According to Calhoun (1989), socialization both teaches people to conform and deviates from the rules of the society. This theory simply shows that from socializing with the people around us would result to deviance or delinquency. We can learn deviance from the people to whom we socialize whether with our family, with our schoolmates, with our neighbors and most especially with our peers who we are always with.
In general, it is our parents and friends that influence as the most making them the most dominant force of socialization. To illustrate, if a child grew up in an environment which is dominated by criminal behaviors he would think that these behaviors are normal, that it is natural to perform this acts the way the people surrounding him do. He would then end up doing criminal acts. The same is true with a person who is with delinquent friends. He may adapt to the wrongdoings of his peers in order to belong to their circle. Then he would be prone in doing crimes.
The next theory is the Rational Choice Theory. Conservatives regarded this theory as the most acceptable theory. This theory suggests that being delinquent is a personal choice. Delinquency is solely based on the individuals own point of view. But this theory is argued by some for they believe that delinquents do not know what they are doing (Calhoun 1989). But proponents of these theories would argue that in most circumstances the individual chooses to perform delinquent actions because of its gains and take the risks of being caught.
This means that delinquents prefer to take the risks in return for much favorable gains in doing the act. But it is not always the case. Young peoples values are not the same with grown-ups. Their motives are also different from the elders. Youth are not even thinking the consequences of their actions. Delinquency, in the context of this theory, is the product of opposition to the authority or deviance to cultural norms. To illustrate, an adolescent may plant a bomb inside the vicinity of his school to show that he is against the authorities of that school. In this case, the act of deviance is like in the form of protest.
The next theory is the Labeling Theory. This theory suggests that groups in the society have rules in which it applies to people outside their circles. These people are then labeled as outsiders. This perspective suggests that deviance is not the behavior or act that is performed; instead it is the result of the rules imposed by social groups to the offender (Leighninger, 1996).
If a person did a crime and he got caught, that is the only time that the person would realize the consequences and the negative side of his actions. Thus when someone has been called or labeled as a juvenile delinquent, that person would realize that it was wrong. Self- identity is developed in the period of adolescence. Thus, the juvenile would develop his identity and would choose an identity that is far more committed to negative behavior like engaging into crimes. On the other hand if a juvenile developed a negative self-identity, he will opt to engage in crimes and link it with other criminals or delinquents.
The Structural-Functionalists theory believes that crimes have its own purpose and function in the society. They believe that the existing structure of the society will really result in juvenile delinquency. Negative behaviors like crimes and delinquencies are action which deviates from the legal and cultural standards. These behaviors can change society. In the French Revolution the citizens defied the rules of the society. They committed crimes. Here, deviant behaviors are not always negative. They were able to test the status quo and this result to change, a positive change in this case. Crimes basically can introduce change, both negative and positive.
Deviance provides different perspectives. It is important to note the purpose of different actions within the society in order to understand it at large. But how can the structure of the society results to juvenile delinquency? Some communities are structured in a way that it is dominated by delinquent behavior while some are so ideological and focused on success.
These structures can pressure individuals. In a society wherein there is greater emphasis on success, the people who cant attain success will be in misery. This misery and strains would then lead to juvenile delinquency. These juveniles who commit delinquent behavior rebel against the goals of the society and by being deviant they were able to define their own goals.
According to the Conflict Theory, juvenile delinquency is the consequence of conflict between different groups in the society. Conflicts can be based on classes, power, ethnicity, races or ideologies. This theory sees juvenile delinquency as a form of protest against these conflicts. Juvenile delinquency can be morally right or not. Some acts can be accepted and some are not.
Moving on, the Social Control Theory believes that humans are naturally delinquent. It suggests that it is a human nature to commit crimes. The question here is that why others do not engage in crimes. This view thinks that institutions in the society create ties or linkages. Example of this bond is the committing to success and behavior which is vibrant in social standards, and to attain success one must get both good education and job. These are the individuals who learned to have faith and value the rules and laws of the society. They become good citizens by being law abiding individuals. Thus, those persons who were not able to create a bond like this are those who become juvenile delinquents. These juvenile delinquents failed to form the bond created by the law abiding people.
The Strain Theory has similarities with the Structural Functionalist Theory. The proponent of this theory is Robert Merton. According to this theory, success which is greatly valued in the society is restricted to the lower class or to the poor people.
They are only left with two choices; the first is to be defeated in their goals to become successful or to perform deviant behavior in which it is the only way they can achieve their goals in order to succeed. This theory is applies mostly in lower classes. The point is that these juveniles do not have the resources (for education) in order to compete and become successful. This strain is a problem in which they must act in order to achieve their goals. Because this theory is equated with poverty, it is only limited to the lower class individuals and does not apply to delinquencies in the suburban places.
Another theory is the Cultural Deviance Theory. This theory suggests that it is the environment that creates delinquents. According to this theory, the environment which is appropriate in producing juvenile delinquents are characterized by worse physical environment, fiscal problems, racial discrimination, domination of social ailments like psychological illness, unemployment, etc. This would mean that individuals living in this kind of environment will probable become juvenile delinquents.
Juvenile delinquency is explained by various theories as presented in this article. Each theory tries to understand and fully explain juvenile delinquency. All these theories have their good and relevant point which is important in discussing juvenile delinquents. It does not really matter which theory best describes juvenile delinquency because all these theories has its own specific applications and also, limitations as well as exceptions to each theories. This theories are not mutually exclusive, it must be noted that when a particular theory is not sufficient to explain juvenile delinquency, other theories can be used to support this theory to fully explain this issue. The theories on juvenile delinquencies can be used together to better explain delinquencies.
Calhoun, C., Light D. and Keller S., 1989. Sociology. 5th ed. New York: Alfred Knopf.
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Leighninger, L., and Phillip R., 1996. Social Work, Social Welfare, and American Society. (3rd. ed.). MA: Allyn and Bacon
Miller, Jerome G., 1991. Last One Over the Wall. Ohio: Ohio State University Press.
Tomovic, V.A., 1979. Definitions in Sociology: Convergence, Conflict and Alternative Vocabularies. Ontario: Diliton Publications, Inc.