Definition of juvenile delinquency
Juvenile delinquency refers to antisocial or illegal behavior by children or adolescents. 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. 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' 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. 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 a person who is typically under the age of 18 and commits an act that otherwise would've been charged as a crime if they were an adult. Juvenile delinquents sometimes have associated mental disorders and/or behavioral issues such as post traumatic stress disorder or bipolar disorder, and are sometimes diagnosed with conduct disorder partially as both the cause and resulting effects of their behaviors.
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. Rational choice theory is the clearest example of this idea.
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 (e.g. 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 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. 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. 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 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.
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