Juvenile delinquency is a serious problem in America. It can be said that since most juvenile delinquents grow up into adult offenders who perpetrate more serious crimes, the best way to reduce the overall crime rate in America is to reduce the number of juvenile delinquents. In other words, stop the problem before it really gets started. To best deal with any problem we must first understand why it occurs. Explaining why crime and delinquency occur is a complex task. Many factors exist that contribute to the understanding of what leads someone to engage in delinquent behavior. While explanations involving biological and psychological factors hold some merit when explaining crime and delinquency, perhaps social factors can best explain juvenile delinquency.
The social causes of juvenile delinquency include many theories that have been set forth by criminologists and sociologists. Many of the theories will be applicable to at least some instances of crime and delinquency and some instances can be explained using more then one single theory.
The Social Learning Theory or the Differential Association Theory states that crime is learned behavior. "People learn criminal behavior through the groups with which they associate. If a person associates with more groups that define criminal behavior as acceptable as groups that define criminal behavior as unacceptable, the person will probably engage in criminal behavior" (Leighninger 1996). Just as people must learn though socialization how to conform to their society's norms, they must also learn how to depart from those norms. In other words, deviance, like conforming behavior, is a product of socialization" (Calhoun 176) This theory states that a juvenile can socially learn deviant behavior from those around him/her such as their family, peers, or anyone else that he or she may come in contact with. The parents and peers are the most influential agents in socialization.
An example of this theory would be a child who grows up in a home where the parents routinely engaged in criminal acts. Then the child would grow up assuming that these acts are normal and acceptable. Also, if a child is around peers who engage in delinquent activities they may learn and accept the activities of their peers and be much more prone to engaging in delinquent behavior.
Some theorists look at the structure of society to explain juvenile delinquency. In certain situations, a society or even a neighborhood can be structured in such a way that promotes delinquency and criminal behavior. The Social Structure theories link delinquency rates to socioeconomic conditions and cultural values.
One of the Social Structure theories is the Strain Theory. Robert Merton, an American sociologist, explained delinquency through this theory. He argued that delinquency occurs when lower-class youth become frustrated because they lack the means for achieving their personal goals. (Siegel & Welsh, 2005) This is most likely to occur in large cities. For example, data from the FBI's Supplementary Homicide Reports showed that nearly 1 in 4 homicides by juveniles occurred in eight counties. The major cities in these counties (beginning with the city in the county with the greatest number of identified juvenile homicide offenders) are Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, New York, Baltimore, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Dallas. As these counties contain just 12% of the U.S. population, it is clear that homicide by juveniles is concentrated in a small portion of the U.S. geographic area.
Theorists from this perspective look at the environment and sub-culture that a juvenile resides in. This perspective sees delinquency as a function of the surroundings or environment that a juvenile lives in. The saying, "society made me do it" could help to better understand this perspective.
The Strain theory has been mainly applied to juvenile delinquency among lower-class boys. The central...
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Leighninger, L., & Popple, Phillip R. (1996). Social Work, Social Welfare, and American
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National Criminal Justice Reference Service: Statistics Page. Retreived 15 October, 2006 from ncjj.servhttp.com/CNJJWebsite
Siegel, Larry J. & Welsh, Brandon C. (2005). Juvenile Delinquency. Thomas Learning Inc.
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