Juvenile delinquency refers to behaviors by people not legally adults that are outside of the norms of society, either formally or informally.
Generally, it will refer specifically to behaviors that are illegal and enforced by formal social controls, such as through criminal justice agencies. However, it may also refer to engagement in taboo and personally destructive but not illegal behaviors.
Common examples of juvenile delinquency include shoplifting, petty theft, consuming illicit or regulated substances, and spraying graffiti.
Juvenile Delinquency Definition and Overview
The term ‘juvenile delinquency’ encompasses a wide range of actions, from minor offenses such as truancy and curfew violation, to severe criminal behaviors like theft and assault.
Juvenile delinquency is formally defined by Siegel and Welsh (2016) as:
“…the participation by a minor child, usually between the ages of 10 and 17, in illegal behavior or activities” (Siegel & Welsh, 2016, p. 13).
However, the concept and, therefore, the definition of juvenile delinquency is intrinsically linked to the legal and cultural context of a given society, meaning the age at which a person is considered a juvenile and the range of behaviors classified as delinquent can vary widely (Beck, Lee, & Kim, 2018).
Moreover, the approach toward dealing with juvenile delinquents has seen a significant shift over time.
Historically, societies dealt with juvenile offenders in the same way as adult criminals; however, the recognition of young people’s distinctive psychological, social, and developmental needs has brought about changes in law enforcement, sentencing, and rehabilitation approaches (Bala & Anand, 2020; Chen & Adams, 2021).
Namely, in most nations, there are laws around minimum ages at which people can be found criminally responsible for their behaviors. Furthermore, imprisoned juveniles are often kept separate from imprisoned adults.
Examples of Juvenile Delinquency
1. Vandalism: Vandalism is the destruction of either public property or the property of another private individual. This could range from a minor offence, such as scratching a name into a school desk, to severe, such as causing damage to a shopping mall or transit corridor. It tends to emerge in juveniles due to desire to engage in thrill-seeking behaviors, out of desire for recognition from peers, or inability to control emotions. Sometimes, it can also be engaged in as an expressive art form (see later: Graffiti). Vandalism can be indicative of environmental factors that need to be addressed such as lack of supervision, lack of appropriate outlets for play or expression, and peer pressure.
2. Shoplifting: Shoplifting is a common juvenile offense that involves taking items from a store without paying for them. This behavior may be caused by the desire to obtain material goods that the young person cannot access due to lack of participation in the labor market, but could also be the result of thrill-seeking behaviors and peer pressure. It may also be an exhibition of boredom among unsupervised teens.
3. Substance Abuse: Substance abuse among juveniles involves the consumption of illegal or controlled substances, often ones legal to adults but illegal to teens. However, it may also involve the abuse of prescribed substances as a way to seek thrills, or even, a result of curiosity, anxiety, or depression. This is extremely common among young people, with almost half of graduates from US high schools having abused a controlled substance.
4. Truancy: Truancy refers to the behavior of skipping school or other mandated events without permission. It tends to occur when young people feel excluded, isolated, or disconnected from their educational community. It can lead to poor grades at school, missed opportunities to develop important cognitive, social, and physical skills in formal education, and may also cause social isolation.
5. Cyberbullying: Since the rise of social media, society has been slow to support children in developing media literacy skills and the ability to communicate appropriately online (also known as netiquette). The anonymity provided by the internet can often make cyberbullies feel detached from the real-life consequences of their actions. While this behavior is often a violation of an informal norm rather than a legal infraction, it can lead to devastating consequences to the victims, who are usually also youths.
6. Physical assault: Physical assault is also common among juvenile delinquents, especially in school yards and other unregulated environments. Most common among male perpetrators, it is often seen and addressed as a symptom of poor problem-solving skills, poor impulse control, or inability to identify and model socially acceptable behaviors.
7. Arson: Arson refers to the fact of intentionally setting fires to public or private property. This act often leads to significant financial loss to the victims or costs to the public. Like many other acts of juvenile delinquency, it has a range of similar causes, including expressions of curiosity, thrill-seeking, or acts of revenge.
8. Joyriding: Joyriding refers to the act of stealing a vehicle, generally with the intent of driving it around, with disregard for its safety, before discarding it. This act is different from carjacking with the intent of making profits, and this is often because youths don’t have the social networks that can assist them in selling the goods on.
9. Graffiti: Graffiti involves using paints – often out of spray cans – to mark and deface public propery. Generally, it involves the use of unique ‘tags’ (designs) that young people use as a way to gain social status and credit. Graffiti is a particularly interesting version of juvenile delinquency because those who engage in it are often extremely talented artists, and create art that makes important social commentary. Nevertheless, it is considered illegal without the property owner’s consent.
10. Trespassing: Trespassing involves entering or staying on a property without the owner’s permission. Commonly, this occurs when young people have parties on abandoned public or private property. Juveniles may also trespass as a form of thrill-seeking, to engage in other illegal activies (such as graffiti art and theft), or out of peer pressure. It may also be an act of rebellion against the authority that owns or manages the property.
Theories of Juvenile Delinquency (Sociology and Criminology)
1. Strain Theory
Strain theory, developed by American sociologist Robert Merton in the late 1930s, argues that crime is committed by juveniles because they do not have access to the means of legitimately obtaining social status, power, and wealth.
In the words of the theory, it holds that everyone aspires toward “cultural goals” such as status, power, and wealth, but if they cannot use “legitimate means” to access those goals, then they will choose to utilize illegitimate means, institutionalized means to achieve these goals.
This discrepancy between aspirations and legitimate means can lead to ‘strain’.
In the context of juveniles, this strain is often caused because they lack access to the labor market or other means to obtain culturally-desirable goals that are afforded to adults.
When juveniles perceive an imbalance between their ambitions (often influenced by societal standards) and their ability to fulfill these ambitions through legitimate means, they can experience frustration.
This strain can push them to resort to illegitimate methods, such as criminal activities, to achieve their goals, leading to delinquent behavior (Agnew, 1992).
2. Social Learning Theory
Proposed by Albert Bandura in the 1970s, the social learning theory holds that young people’s behaviors are a direct result of behaviors learned through observation of role models (Bandura, 1977).
A young person who observes delinquent behaviors among older siblings, parents, uncles, peers, neighbors, and so forth, may be more inclined to mirror and emulate those behaviors than young people who are exposed to role models who engage in prosocial behaviors.
The theory has implications for our understanding of whether we should expose our young people to violent and antisocial media, including movies and video games, and whether (and when) social services should be allowed to remove children from homes.
Moreover, the social learning theory argues that delinquent behaviors that are rewarded, reinforced, or normalized, will more likely be engaged in by youths.
3. Social Bond Theory
Hirschi’s social bond theory argues that young people will be less inclined to engage in delinquent behavior if they have strong social bond (Hirschi, 1969; Pratt et al., 2010).
In other words, social bonds control individuals by keeping them engaged with social and cultural norms and values.
Hirschi argued that having strong attachments to one’s family and community, and commitment to following rules and laws preserve social order in a society (Hirschi, 1969; Pratt et al., 2010).
Being involved with day to day routines such as going to work or school, attending church, and having a strong belief system, will socialize young people into internalizing appropriate social norms.
4. Labeling Theory
The labeling theory of deviance holds that society labels young people as deviants, and in that process of labeling, the young people will come to believe themselves to be deviant, and engage in deviant behavior as a result.
The simplest example is in schools, where a teacher labels a child a ‘bad kid’ and treats them as suspect, expecting them to engage in misbehavior. Over time, the child will internalize this belief (known as the secondary stage of deviance), and at this point, will engage in misbehavior because it’s expected of them. They’re simply acting consistently with their social identity.
In other words, the labeled individual might experience “self-fulfilling prophecy.”
The theory has its roots in symbolic interactionism, which asserts that the self-identity and behavior of individuals can be influenced by the terms used to describe or classify them (Becker, 1963).
Factors Influencing Juvenile Delinquency
Various factors can influence juvenile delinquency. These are often categorized into two broad groups: situational factors, which are tied to the circumstances and environment of the individual; and dispositional factors, which are inherent traits or characteristics of the individual.
1. Situational Factors
- Peer and Family Influence: Peers play a crucial role during adolescence, and association with deviant peers has been linked to increased risk of delinquent behavior (Dishion, Patterson, Stoolmiller, & Skinner, 1991). Similarly, as argued in the social learning theory, family role models are highly influential in affecting a young person’s behaviors.
- School Environment: Poor academic performance, low school attachment, and negative school experiences can contribute to delinquency (Hawkins, Catalano, & Miller, 1992).
- Neighborhood and Community Context: Some scholars argue that living in a high-crime neighborhood, or poverty-stricken areas can expose children to delinquency (Sampson, Raudenbush, & Earls, 1997). For example, the differential opportunity theory holds that people in neighborhoods where there are established gangs or crime groups are more likely to engage in organized crime, while the same child in a neighborhood without organized gangs will be more likely to engage in more petty delinquent behaviors.
2. Dispositional Factors
- Personality Traits: Certain personality traits, such as impulsivity, difficulty in delaying gratification, or a tendency towards aggression, may make a child more prone to delinquent behavior (Moffitt, 1993).
- Gender: Young men often face difficulties in dealing with emotions, testosterone spikes, and difficulty with developing an identity, which leads them into delinquency at much higher rates than young women.
- Psychological Difficulties: Mental health disorders like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), conduct disorder, or depression are often associated with increased risk of delinquent behavior (Lynam, 1996). Of course, as with gender, having ADHD is not a deterministic factor – most people with ADHD do not engage in seriously delinquent behaviors.
It’s crucial to note that these factors do not act in isolation but interact with each other in complex ways to influence an individual’s likelihood of engaging in delinquent behavior.
Juvenile delinquency is a very common sociological phenomenon in most societies. Today, most juveniles are treated by social work, educational, and criminal justice institutions as having unique needs due to their still developing cognitive and psychological capacities. Generally, there are a range of petty crimes that juveniles will engage in, such as joyriding and vandalism, that can be addressed by looking at root causes such as peer pressure, thrill-seeking, and lack of supervision.
Agnew, R. (1992). Foundation for a general strain theory of crime and delinquency. Criminology, 30(1), 47-88.
Bala, N., & Anand, S. (2020). Evolution of the juvenile justice system: Implications for practice and policy. International Journal of Child Rights, 28(2), 239-256.
Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. London: Prentice-Hall.
Beck, E., Lee, B., & Kim, H. (2018). The cultural and legal contexts of juvenile delinquency in South Korea. International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice, 53, 61-74.
Becker, H. (1963). Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance. London: Free Press.
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Hirschi, T. (1969). Causes of delinquency. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Merton, R. K. (1938). Social structure and anomie. American Sociological Review, 3(5), 672-682.
Siegel, L. J., & Welsh, B. C. (2016). Juvenile Delinquency: The Core (6th ed.). Cengage Learning.
Zubaidah, S., Putri, N., & Hakim, A. (2019). Juvenile delinquency: A significant issue in many societies. International Journal of Social Sciences and Humanity Studies, 11(1), 50-58.
Chris Drew (PhD)
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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.