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Juvenile Delinquency

Chronic antisocial behavior by persons 18 years of age or younger that is beyond parental control and is often subjected to legal and punitive action.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the arrest rate of American juveniles (persons 18 years of age or younger) committing violent crimes increased from 137 percent in 1965 to 430 percent in 1990. While teenagers are the population most likely to commit crimes, their delinquency is related to the overall incidence of crime in society: teen crime increases as adult crime does. The majority of violent teenage crime is committed by males. While the same delinquency rates are attributed to both whites and nonwhites, nonwhites have a higher arrest rate.

In spite of the emotional turbulence associated with adolescence, most teenagers find legal, nonviolent ways to express feelings of anger and frustration and to establish self-esteem. Nonetheless, some teenagers turn to criminal activity for these purposes and as a reaction to peer pressure. A number of factors have been linked to the rise in teen crime, including family violence. Parents who physically or verbally abuse each other or their children are much more likely to raise children who will commit crimes. In a study conducted in 1989, for example, 80 out of 95 incarcerated juvenile delinquents had witnessed or been victims of severe family violence. A similar incidence of abuse was found in a study of teenage murderers.

The growing poverty rate in the U.S., particularly among children, has also been attributed to juvenile delinquency. In the late 1980s, the National Education Association predicted that 40 percent of secondary school students will live below the poverty line. The anger and frustration of low-income youths excluded from the "good life" depicted in the mass media, coupled with the lack of visible opportunities to carve out productive paths for themselves, lead many to crime, much of it drug-related. A dramatic link has been found between drug use and criminal activity: people who abuse illegal drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, have been found to commit six times as many crimes as non-drug users.

For many poor inner-city youths, juvenile delinquency begins with participation in the drug trade. Children as young as 9 or 10 are paid as much as $100 a day to serve as lookouts while drug deals are taking place. Next, they become runners and may eventually graduate to being dealers. The introduction of crack cocaine, one of the most powerfully addictive drugs in existence, in the mid-1980s, has contributed to drug-related delinquency. The neglected children of crack-addicted parents are especially likely to be pulled into the drug culture themselves.

The wealth gained from the drug trade has further escalated levels of juvenile delinquency by fueling the rise of violent street gangs. Many gangs are highly organized operations with formal hierarchies and strict codes of dress and behavior. With millions of dollars in drug money behind them, they are expanding from major urban areas to smaller communities. Teens, both poor and middle-class, join gangs for status, respect, and a feeling of belonging denied them in other areas of their lives. Some are pressured into joining to avoid harassment from gang members. Once in a gang, teens are much more likely to be involved in violent acts.

The juvenile justice system has been criticized as outdated and ineffective in dealing with the volume and nature of today's teen crime. A teenager must be either 16 or 18 years of age (depending on the state) to be tried as an adult in criminal court, regardless of the crime committed. Child offenders under the age of 13 are considered juvenile delinquents and can only be tried in family court, no matter what type of crime they have committed. Unless the offender has already committed two serious crimes, the maximum punishment is 18 months in a youth facility. Teenagers between the ages of 13 and 16 are classified as "juvenile offenders." They are rarely photographed or fingerprinted, even in cases involving rape or murder, and usually receive lenient sentences. Most are confined for period of less than four months.

Of approximately 2 million juveniles arrested each year, an estimated 50 percent are released immediately. Those whose cases are tried in court are often given suspended sentences or put on probation. Of those who are sentenced to prison, most return to criminal activity upon their release, and many fear that these young offenders come out of prisons even more violent. In addition, the unmanageable caseloads of probation officers in many cities makes it impossible to keep track of juveniles adequately. Thus, those teens who turn to crime face little in the way of a deterrent, a situation that has caused many authorities to place a large share of the blame for teen crime on the failure of the juvenile justice system.

Alternative community-based programs for all but the most violent teens have had some success in reducing juvenile crime. These include group homes which offer counseling and education; wilderness programs such as Outward Bound; crisis counseling programs that provide emergency aid to teenagers and their families; and placement in a foster home, when a stable home environment is lacking.

Further Reading

Binder, Arnold. Juvenile Delinquency: Historical, Cultural, Legal Perspectives. New York: Macmillan, 1988.

Grinney, Ellen Heath. Delinquency and Criminal Behavior. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1992.

Trojanowicz, Robert C. Juvenile Delinquency: Concepts and Control. New York: Prentice Hall, 1983.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Ibn Bajjah (Abu-Bakr Muhammad ibn-Yahya ibn-al-Saʼigh, c.1106–38) Biography to Perception: cultural differences