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Criminology and Penology
Differential Association Theory
Labeling Theory
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See also: Wikibooks:Social Deviance

Juvenile delinquency refers to children who act against the law. 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 a major issue and is an aspect of crime which receives great attention from the news media and politicians. Crime committed by young people has risen since the mid-twentieth century, as have most types of crime[citation needed]. 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[1] 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.[2] 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. Usually,a delinquent will do to someone else what has been done to them. A Juvenile Delinquent is one who repeatedly commits crime. These juvenile delinquents sometimes have mental disorders/behavioral issues such as post traumatic stress disorder or bipolar disorder, and are sometimes diagnosed with conduct disorder[3] partially as a result of their delinquent behaviors.


Theoretical causes

Rational choice

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[1]. Rational choice theory is the clearest example of this approach.

Social disorganization

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 local government) 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.[1] 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.[4] Merton's suggests five adaptations to this dilemma:

  1. Innovation: individuals who accept socially approved goals, but not necessarily the socially approved means.
  2. Retreatism: those who reject socially approved goals and the means for acquiring them.
  3. 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.
  4. Conformity: those who conform to the system's means and goals.
  5. 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.

Differential association

The theory of Differential association also deals with young people in a group context, and looks at how peer pressure and the existence of gangs could lead them into crime. It suggests young people are motivated to commit crimes by delinquent peers, and learn criminal skills from them. The diminished influence of peers after men marry has also been cited as a factor in desisting from offending. There is strong evidence that young people with criminal friends are more likely to commit crimes themselves. However it may be the case that offenders prefer to associate with one another, rather than delinquent peers causing someone to start offending. Furthermore there is the question of how the delinquent peer group became delinquent initially.


Labeling theory states that once young people have been labeled as criminal they are more likely to offend. (Eadie & Morley: 2003 p. 552) The idea is that once labelled as deviant a young person may accept that role, and be more likely to associate with others who have been similarly labelled. (Eadie & Morley: 2003 p. 552) Labelling theorists say that male children from poor families are more likely to be labelled deviant, and that this may partially explain why there are more lower-class young male offenders. (Walklate: 2003 p. 24)

Male phenomenon

Youth crime is disproportionately[5] committed by young men. Feminist theorists and others have examined why this is the case. (Eadie & Morley: 2003 p. 553) One suggestion is that ideas of masculinity may make young men more likely to offend. Being tough, powerful, aggressive, daring and competitive may be a way young men attempt to express their masculinity. (Brown: 1998 p. 109) Acting out these ideals may make young men more likely to engage in antisocial and criminal behaviour. (Walklate: 2003 p. 83) Alternatively, rather than young men acting as they do because of societal pressure to conform to masculine ideals; young men may actually be naturally more aggressive, daring etc. As well as biological or psychological factors, the way young men are treated by their parents may make them more susceptible to offending. (Walklate: 2003 p. 35) According to a study led by Florida State University criminologist Kevin M. Beaver, adolescent males who possess a certain type of variation in a specific gene are more likely to flock to delinquent peers. The study, which appears in the September 2008 issue of the Journal of Genetic Psychology, is the first to establish a statistically significant association between an affinity for antisocial peer groups and a particular variation (called the 10-repeat allele) of the dopamine transporter gene (DAT1).[6]

Risk factors

Individual risk factors

Individual psychological or behavioural risk factors that may make offending more likely include intelligence, impulsiveness or the inability to delay gratification, aggression, empathy, and restlessness. (Farrington: 2002) Children with low intelligence are likely to do worse in school. This may increase the chances of offending because low educational attainment, a low attachment to school, and low educational aspirations are all risk factors for offending in themselves. (Walklate: 2003 p. 2) Children who perform poorly at school are also more likely to truant, which is also linked to offending. (Farrington: 2002 p. 682) If strain theory or subcultural theory are valid poor educational attainment could lead to crime as children were unable to attain wealth and status legally. However it must be born in mind that defining and measuring intelligence is troublesome. Young males are especially likely to be impulsive which could mean they disregard the long-term consequences of their actions, have a lack of self-control, and are unable to postpone immediate gratification. This may explain why they disproportionately offend. (Farrington: 2002 p. 682) (Walklate: 2003 p. 36) Impulsiveness is seen by some as the key aspect of a child's personality that predicts offending. (Farrington: 2002 p. 682) However is not clear whether these aspects of personality are a result of “deficits in the executive functions of the brain”, (Farrington: 2002 p. 667) or a result of parental influences or other social factors. (Graham & Bowling: 1995 p. 32)

Mental disorders

Conduct disorder usually develops during childhood and manifests itself during an adolescence life. (Holmes et al.:2001 p. 183) Some juvenile behavior is attributed to the diagnosable disorder known as conduct disorder. In accordance to the DSM-IV-TR Codes 312.xx( where xx varies upon the specifice subtype exhibited) adolescence who exhibit conduct disorder also show a lack of empathy and disregard for societal norms. The DSM is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association [7] and most often referred to by Psychiatrists for diagnosing mental disorders. Juvenile delinquents who have recurring encounters with the criminal justice system are sometimes diagnosed with conduct disorders because they show a continuous disregard for their own and others safety and property. Once the juvenile continues to exhibit the same behavioral patterns and turns eighteen he is then at risk of being diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder and much more prone to become a serious criminal offender. (DeLisi: 2005 p. 39) One of the main components used in diagnosing an adult with antisocial personality disorder consists of presenting documented history of conduct disorder before the age of 15. These two personality disorders are analogous in their erratic and aggressive behavior. This is why habitual juvenile offenders diagnosed with conduct disorder are likely to exhibit signs of antisocial personality disorder as they mature. Once the juveniles reach maturation their socially unacceptable behavior has grown into a life style and they develop into career criminals. "Career criminals begin committing antisocial behavior before entering grade school and are versatile in that they engage in an array of destructive behaviors, offend at exceedingly high rates, and are less likely to quit committing crime as they age."[8]

Quantitave research was completed on 9,945 juvenile male offenders between the ages of 10 and 18 in the 1970s. The longitudinal birth cohort was used to examine a trend among a small percentage of career criminals who accounted for the largest percentage of crime activity.[9] The trend exhibited a new phenomenon amongst habitual offenders. For this study habitual offenders were youth who experienced more than five police encounters.(Wolfgang et al.: 1972) The phenomenon indicated that only 6% of the youth qualified under their definition of a habitual offender and yet were responsible for 52% of the delinquency within the entire study. (Wolfgang et al.: 1972) The same 6% of chronic offenders accounted for 71% of the murders and 69% of the aggravated assaults.(Wolfgang et al.: 1972). This phenomenon was later researched among an adult population in 1977 and resulted in similar findings. S.A. Mednick did a birth cohort of 30,000 males and found that 1% of the males were responsible for more than half of the criminal activity.[10] The habitual crime behavior found amongst juveniles is similar to that of adults. Habitual offenders "will make a 'career' of bad choinces and bad behavior and probably end up, sooner, or later, dead or in prison" (DeLisi, 2005). These juvenile offenders are in need of treatment because they have a negative disposition and high propensity to continue committing crime.(DeLisi, 2005)

Family environment

Family factors which may have an influence on offending include; the level of parental supervision, the way parents discipline a child, parental conflict or separation, criminal parents or siblings, parental abuse or neglect, and the quality of the parent-child relationship (Graham & Bowling: 1995 p. 33) Children brought up by lone parents are more likely to start offending than those who live with two natural parents, however once the attachment a child feels towards their parent(s) and the level of parental supervision are taken into account, children in single parent families are no more likely to offend than others. (Graham & Bowling: 1995 p. 35) Conflict between a child's parents is also much more closely linked to offending than being raised by a lone parent. (Walklate: 2003 p. 106) If a child has low parental supervision they are much more likely to offend. (Graham & Bowling: 1995) Many studies have found a strong correlation between a lack of supervision and offending, and it appears to be the most important family influence on offending. (Farrington: 2002 p. 610) (Graham & Bowling: 1995 p. 38) When parents commonly do not know where their children are, what their activities are, or who their friends are, children are more likely to truant from school and have delinquent friends, each of which are linked to offending. (Graham & Bowling: 1995 p. 45,46) A lack of supervision is connected to poor relationships between children and parents, as children who are often in conflict with their parents may be less willing to discuss their activities with them. (Graham & Bowling: 1995 p. 37) Children with a weak attachment to their parents are more likely to offend. (Graham & Bowling: 1995 p. 37)


Delinquency Prevention is the broad term for all efforts aimed at preventing youth from becoming involved in criminal, or other antisocial, activity. Increasingly, governments are recognizing the importance of allocating resources for the prevention of delinquency. Because it is often difficult for states to provide the fiscal resources necessary for good prevention, organizations, communities, and governments are working more in collaboration with each other to prevent juvenile delinquency.

With the development of delinquency in youth being influenced by numerous factors, prevention efforts are comprehensive in scope. Prevention services include activities such as substance abuse education and treatment, family counseling, youth mentoring, parenting education, educational support, and youth sheltering.

Critique of risk factor research

- Reductionism - e.g. over-simplfying complex experiences and circumstances by converting them to simple quantities, relying on a psychosocial focus whilst neglecting potential socio-structural and political influences;

- Determinism - e.g. characterising young people as passive victims of risk experiences with no ability to construct, negotiate or resist risk;

- Imputation - e.g. assuming that risk factors and definitions of offending are homogenous across countries and cultures, assuming that statistical correlations between risk factors and offending actually represent causal relationships, assuming that risk factors apply to individuals on the basis of aggregated data.

Two UK academics, Stephen Case and Kevin Haines, have been particularly forceful in their critique of risk factor research within a number of academic papers and a comprehensive polemic text entitled 'Understanding Youth Offending: Risk Factor Research, Policy and Practice'.

Consequences to society

Untreated mental disorders

Once the juvenile offender reaches maturation he is likely to continue exhibiting maladaptive behaviors and increases his risk of being cycled through the criminal justice system as an adult offender. Due to the small population of habitual adult and juvenile offenders attributing for the large percentage of violent crimes (i.e. murder and aggravated assault) the criminal justice system should supervise the small population of career criminals in an effort to prevent the spawning of serious violent offenders. If mental disorders such as conduct disorder go undiagnosed and untreated the juvenile offender has the increased potential to later develop antisocial personality disorder and continue his life as a career criminal. The majority of violent offenders exhibit characteristics of antisocial personality disorder and exhibit it no later than age 15.[11] Antisocial personality disorder is a common diagnosis for a serial killer. Authors Alvarez and Bachman found that one similarity among serial killers was their prior criminal convictions.[12] In this case conduct disorder can become a probable constituent to serial murder if not diagnosed and treated before it fully develops in adulthood as antisocial personality disorder. Both conduct disorder and antisocial personality disorder are categorized as personality disorders under the DSM-IV-TR and share extremely similar definitions as explained above in 'Mental Disorders'. Some of the common characteristics include consistent violation of societal norms, aggressive behavior towards people,and a disassociation to the emotion of empathy. These traits are also common amongst serial killers and if the maladaptive behaviors are not treated they have the potential to conceive a person that fantasizes about killing several victims and then fulfills their impulsivity when they are no longer capable of suppressing it.[13]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Eadie, T. & Morley, R. (2003) ‘Crime, Justice and Punishment’ in Baldock, J. et al. (eds) Social Policy (3 rd edn.) Oxford: Oxford University Press
  2. ^ Walklate, S (2003) Understanding Criminology – Current Theoretical Debates, 2nd edition, Maidenhead: Open University Press.
  3. ^ Holmes et al., (2001)
  4. ^ Brown, S (1998) Understanding Youth and Crime (Listening to youth?), Buckingham: Open University Press.
  5. ^ Violence by Teenage Girls: Trends and Context, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice
  6. ^ Study Reveals Specific Gene in Adolescent Men with Delinquent Peers Newswise, Retrieved on October 1, 2008.
  7. ^ http://www.appi.org/book.cfm?id=2073
  8. ^ DeLisi: 2005 p.6
  9. ^ Marvin, Wolfgang, Robert M. Figlio, & Thorsten Sellin.(1972).'Delinquency in a Birth Cohort': University of Chicago Press.
  10. ^ Raine, A.(1993).'The Psychopathology of Crime:Criminal Behavior as a Clinical Disorder': San Diego, California: Academic Press.
  11. ^ Hickey, Eric. (2006). Serial Murders and Their Victims: Belmont, California: Thomson Higher Education
  12. ^ Alvarez, A. & Bachman, R. (2003). 'Murder American Style': Belmont, California:Wadsworth/Thompson Learning.
  13. ^ Meadows, R.J.,&Kuehnel,J. (2005). 'Evil Minds: Understanding and Responding to Violent Predators: Upper Sadle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall Publisher.
  • Brown, S. (1998) Understanding Youth and Crime (Listening to youth?), Buckingham: Open University Press.
  • DeLisi,Matt. (2005). 'Career Criminals in Society' London, United Kingdom: Sage Publications.
  • Case, S.P. and Haines, K.R. (2009) Understanding Youth Offending: Risk Factor Research, Policy and Practice. Cullompton: Willan.
  • Farrington, D.P. (2002) ‘Developmental criminology and risk-focused prevention’ in M. Maguire et al. (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Criminology (3rd edn.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Graham, J. & Bowling, B. (1995) Young People and Crime, Home Office Research Study No. 145, London: Home Office.
  • Holmes,S.E, James, R.S & Javad K. (2001). 'Risk Factors in Childhood that Lead to the Development of Conduct Disorder and Antisocial Personality Disorder': Child Psychiatry and Human Development, Vol.31(3), Spring 2001.
  • Walklate, S. (2003) Understanding Criminology – Current Theoretical Debates, 2nd edition, Maidenhead: Open University Press.
  • Eadie, T. & Morley, R. (2003) ‘Crime, Justice and Punishment’ in Baldock, J. et al. (eds) Social Policy (3 rd edn.). Oxford: Oxford University Press

Further reading

External links

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