Juvenile Offenders

Interest in juvenile offenders has increased in the past few decades due to the large number of youths coming into contact with the law and the rising violent crime. Research by Howard Snyder and Melissa Sickmund provides extensive juvenile population and crime statistic data, and some of their pertinent information is summarized here to provide a rough picture of the characteristics of juvenile offenders in the United States. From 1989 to the mid-1990s, juvenile violent crime was on the rise, and it peaked in 1994. From 1994 to 2003, the juvenile crime rate decreased, with a particularly steep decline of 48% in the juvenile violent crime arrest rate. Juvenile offending remains a significant social problem, and subgroups of juveniles engage in different levels of criminal behavior. Specifically, the arrest rate for female juveniles has increased over this 10-year period, while the juvenile male arrest rate has declined. Furthermore, while the violent crime arrest rate for Black youth has declined, it still is greater than the rate for any other racial group. Several environmental factors, social factors, and personal traits contribute to the persistence or desistance of juvenile delinquency. While different developmental trajectories for the progression of delinquency and different risk factors for male and female juveniles exist, juvenile offenders generally are at greater risk for mental health problems, less education, substance abuse problems, and low socioeconomic status.

Juvenile Population and Crime Statistics

In 2002, the juvenile population in the United States was nearing 73 million. Just over 2 million juveniles (i.e., under age 18) were arrested in 2003, but fortunately, over the 10-year period from 1994 to 2003, juvenile arrests declined by 18%. Property crimes (e.g., burglary and larceny), which accounted for 463,300 juvenile arrests in 2003, constituted the largest crime category, and violent crimes, such as murder, accounted for 92,300 juvenile arrests. The overall trend for very young offenders, but not for juvenile female offenders, mirrored that for juvenile offenders in general. In fact, the rate of offending for girls increased. Additionally, arrest rates differed by racial group but were similar to the overall pattern for juveniles.

Very Young Juvenile Offenders

Marked differences in the rate of offending across age exist, and there are also general trends in the extent to which very young people engage in antisocial conduct. Very young offenders are of particular concern because it is not expected that young children would be breaking laws. This phenomenon might also signal substantive problems with our parenting practices and broader problems with communities in that both may be less than effective in developing prosocial behavior in youth. Recent trends show that among very young juvenile offenders (10-12 years of age), the arrest rates for violent (+27%) and drug-related (+105%) crimes increased, while their overall arrest rate declined, from 1980 to 2003. Furthermore, for most offense types, more females were arrested than males in the 10- to 12-year age range. For example, the violent crime index for young juvenile female offenders increased by 135% between 1980 and 2003, while it increased only by 14% in the same time period for young juvenile male offenders. Very young juvenile offenders form a unique subgroup in that they are particularly at risk for substance use and gang affiliation.

Gender Trends

Taking into account the total number of arrests in 2003, the arrest rate for juvenile females was higher than that for juvenile males (20% vs. 15%). Additionally, from 1994 to 2003, the arrest rate for juvenile males declined by 22%, which is greater than the decrease in the juvenile female arrest rate (-3%) over this period. Additionally, the juvenile female arrest rate either increased more or decreased less than the juvenile male arrest rate for most offense types. For example, simple assault arrests increased by 1% for juvenile males and by 36% for juvenile females from 1994 to 2003. Juvenile females accounted for 29% of all juvenile arrests and were disproportionately arrested for prostitution (69%) and running away from home (59%). These findings indicate the importance of examining gender differences in juvenile offenders and that trends found with boys do not necessarily reflect what will occur with girls who are offending in the community and vice versa.

Race Trends

White juveniles accounted for 71% of all juvenile arrests in 2003, while Black youths were responsible for 27% of juvenile arrests. Sixteen percent of Black and of White arrests in 2003 were attributed to juveniles. However, Black juveniles, who represented only 16% of the juvenile population (ages 10-17), accounted for 63% of the arrests for robbery, 48% of murder arrests, and 40% of the arrests for motor vehicle theft. The proportion of juvenile arrests varied across offense type. For example, 9% of all arrests for murder involved juveniles, while 51% of all arrests for arson involved juveniles. The proportion of White and Black juvenile arrests also differed across offense types. Juveniles were responsible for a larger proportion of Black arrests than of White arrests for robbery (27%) and motor vehicle theft (33%), while the proportion of White arrests attributed to juveniles was greater for arson (53%) and vandalism (41%). However, Black and White juveniles were both responsible for the same proportions (9%) of Black and White arrests for murder in 2003. Although there has been some discussion about the inequity in charges across race, it is difficult to determine the specific causes of these disparities.

Violent Crime Trend

As mentioned, the violent crime rate varied across years, with the late 1980s to early 1990s evidencing high rates of juvenile violent crime. The Violent Crime Index for juveniles was generally stable from 1980 to 1988, but by 1994, it had increased to 61%. By 2003, the Violent Crime Index for juvenile arrests had dropped below its level in the early 1980s. The juvenile male arrest rate, which was 8.3 times the rate for juvenile females in 1980, dropped to 4.2 times the female arrest rate in 2003. From 1988 to 1994, the increase in the arrest rate for juvenile females (98%) was larger than it was for juvenile males (56%). Additionally, the greater decline in the male than the female rate (51% vs. 32%) from 1994 to 2003 was largely responsible for the decline in the overall rate of juvenile violent crime. While some of these statistics are encouraging, there continue to be a large number of juvenile offenders.

Surprisingly, the murder arrest rate increased 110% from 1987 to 1993. For juvenile males, the arrest rate for murders increased 117% in this time period, which accounted for the overall rise in the juvenile murder arrest rate. The juvenile female arrest rate did not con-tribute to the overall increase because this rate increased only by 36% during this time period. In 2003, the murder arrest rate for both juvenile males (78%) and juvenile females (62%) declined the most since 1980 or earlier. The violent crime trend for several minority groups, including Black, Asian, and Native American, mirrored the trend for White juveniles, with each group’s arrest rate peaking in 1994. The rate for Black juveniles declined the most, but their violent crime arrest rate was still higher than the rate for any other racial group in 2003. In 2003, the violent crime arrest rate for Black juveniles, which had decreased by 35%, was approximately four times the rate for White juveniles, which was the next highest rate (800 arrests vs. 200 arrests per 100,000 juveniles, respectively). The large number of youths who come into contact with the law, which affects their own personal mental health, ability to excel in school, and other aspects of life that could lead to well-being, has led researchers to attempt to better understand youths with conduct problems. This research has led to further efforts to understand juvenile offenders and, thus, further subtyping of juvenile offenders and of youths with conduct problems.

Developmental Pathways of Delinquent Behavior and Juvenile Offending

Childhood- Versus Adolescent-Onset Antisocial Behavior

According to Terrie Moffitt, childhood-onset or life-course-persistent antisocial behavior has a different developmental pathway from adolescent-onset antisocial behavior. Early-onset antisocial behavior is the result of a child’s characteristics and a poor family and social environment. Traits increasing a child’s risk of antisocial behavior include a difficult temperament, cognitive deficits, developmental motor delays, and hyperactivity. Environmental influences include weak or broken familial bonds, poverty, poor parenting, and strained relationships with teachers and peers. Childhood-onset antisocial behavior commonly persists into adulthood, and these children have much poorer prognoses than children with adolescent-onset behavior. Additionally, the life-course-persistent group of antisocial youth, which is much smaller than the adolescent-limited group, is responsible for a disproportionately large amount of crime. In contrast, adolescent-onset antisocial behavior is considered developmentally normal and occurs in otherwise healthy children. Adolescent-onset antisocial behavior is deemed normal because it is a means by which youths establish independence from their parents, and these children generally outgrow this behavior as they progress into young adulthood. However, desistance in adolescent-onset youths may be delayed if they encounter problems, such as addiction.

Triple-Pathway Model

Rolf Loeber and David Farrington identified three categories of troublesome behavior in children aged 7 to 12 years. These authors developed a triple-pathway model to explain the links between various pathways in the context of increasingly severe delinquency. First, children exhibiting disruptive behaviors, such as aggression, should be considered at risk of becoming juvenile offenders because they frequently exhibited similar behaviors early in life. Approximately, one quarter to half of these children are at risk of progressing to delinquency. Next, low-level juvenile offenders commit less serious and generally nonviolent crimes (e.g., shoplifting), but these delinquent behaviors frequently serve as precursors to more serious crimes. Serious juvenile offenders, who have committed homicide, rape, or arson, are of greatest concern because they are responsible for 10% of all juvenile arrests. Additionally, this subset of offenders committed 2%, or 600, of the murders attributed to juveniles, and weapons were used in more than 50% of these murders. Furthermore, juveniles who had access to weapons began committing crimes at a younger age than those juveniles without access to weapons.

The development of delinquent behavior in boys has been shown to occur through three pathways— overt, covert, and authority conflict. Juveniles on the overt pathway initially engage in low levels of aggression but graduate to physical fighting and then violence. In contrast, the covert pathway is associated with the commission of minor acts of delinquency (e.g., shoplifting) before 15 years of age and progresses to property damage (e.g., fire setting) and then to moderately severe forms of delinquency (e.g., fraud). Finally, in juveniles under 12 years of age, the authority conflict pathway is characterized by defiant behavior at low levels and by avoidant behavior (e.g., running away) at the highest level. For these boys, higher levels of avoidant behaviors are associated with a greater risk of covert and overt delinquent behaviors. In all three pathways, as the severity of behaviors increases, the number of juveniles engaging in these behaviors decreases. Additionally, juvenile males with an earlier onset of delinquency are more likely to progress to the more severe behaviors within each pathway. Another trend in the development of delinquent behavior is the expansion of such behavior from the home to the community. However, normal levels of disruptive behavior are commonly seen in 2- and 3-year-old children and, therefore, must be distinguished from problematic levels. Two major indicators of future delinquency are developmentally inappropriate (i.e., elevated) levels of disruptive behaviors in terms of frequency and severity and the persistence of these behaviors beyond 3 years of age.

Gender Differences in Risk Factors for Developing Antisocial Behavior

Female and male juvenile offenders share many risk factors, including poor academic histories, living in high-crime neighborhoods, family dysfunction, and poverty. However, female juvenile offenders are more likely than male juvenile offenders to have experienced physical or sexual abuse. For girls, having at least one parent with a criminal record greatly increases the likelihood that they will be arrested by age 15.

While the overall juvenile female arrest rate exceeds the rate for juvenile males, young females are less likely than boys to possess the risk factors associated with the life-course-persistent trajectory of antisocial behavior. For example, female children exhibit fewer developmental motor delays, temperamental difficulties, and neuropsychological and cognitive problems, including learning and reading difficulties. As predicted, fewer females than males were classified as life-course-persistent, but their backgrounds were similar in that they shared several of the life-course-persistent risk factors. However, adolescence-onset antisocial girls are expected to be more numerous than their life-course-persistent counterparts because they are exposed to the same antisocial peers as are adolescent boys. Yet the opportunities to engage in antisocial behavior may be more limited for adolescent girls than for adolescent boys because girls are more likely to experience physical harm (e.g., sexual assault), which may reduce their involvement in delinquent behaviors.

Predictors of Desistance and Persistence

The initial commission of a criminal act by age 13 is associated with a 2 to 3 times greater risk of chronic, violent offending. Depending on environmental factors and personality or behavioral traits, criminal behavior in juveniles can be prolonged. The presence or absence of snares (e.g., delinquent peers) could respectively limit or promote desistance of criminal behavior in juveniles. For example, economically depressed neighborhoods have high rates of juvenile crime and violence, and they have more risk and fewer protective factors. Within neighborhoods, additional sources of influence include a youth’s family and peers, and the interaction of these microsystems must be collectively considered to gain a more complete understanding of juvenile delinquency. Additional environmental factors associated with juvenile offending include poverty, tenuous community bonds, minimal social control from other residents in the neighborhood, and low parental supervision. A consistent finding in juvenile delinquency research is that associating with a delinquent peer group is a strong predictor of serious, chronic offending. In contrast, protective factors include consistent discipline and positive, warm parental interactions.

Personality traits of juveniles also influence the frequency and severity of their committing delinquent or criminal acts. Callousness and impulsivity have both been linked to future juvenile delinquency. Low restraint (e.g., impulsivity) and high distress (e.g., anxiety) are associated with rearrest. However, high-restraint youth committed fewer but more severe crimes.

Callous and unemotional traits (e.g., lack of empathy) have consistently been linked to a subgroup of antisocial youth with particularly severe aggressive behavior. Furthermore, callous children also express a preference for arousing, dangerous stimuli and have lower levels of reactivity to threatening or emotionally upsetting stimuli.

Consequences of Juvenile Offending

Several consequences of juvenile offending exist, and they are particularly salient for juveniles with early-onset of delinquency. Early-onset juvenile offenders are more likely to continue engaging in delinquent behavior, and the repeated commission of such acts throughout childhood is also a factor in persistent delinquency. In other words, involvement in delinquency precludes juveniles from engaging in prosocial behaviors and is associated with low educational attainment, inadequate social skills, limited employment opportunities, low socioeconomic status, and, for males, early parenthood. These juveniles also have higher rates of externalizing behaviors (e.g., aggression), internalizing behaviors (e.g., depression), substance abuse, and suicide. The increased number and severity of mental health problems in juvenile offenders lead to their greater involvement with child welfare service, mental health providers, and the criminal justice system. Juvenile offenders and their victims have more psychological and occupational problems and, overall, a lower quality of life. Moreover, juvenile delinquents who develop into chronic offenders cost society $1.3 to 1.5 million. Because of the great impact juvenile offending has on the children involved in criminal activity and on society, further research into prevention and intervention needs to be conducted.


  1. Grisso, T., Vincent, G. M., & Seagrave, D. (2005). Mental health screening and assessment in juvenile justice. New York: Guilford Press.
  2. Loeber, R., & Farrington, D. P. (2000). Young children who commit crime: Epidemiology, developmental origins, risk factors, early interventions, and policy implications. Development and Psychopathology, 12, 737-762.
  3. Moffitt, T. E. (1993). “Life-course-persistent” and “adolescence-limited” antisocial behavior: A developmental taxonomy. Psychological Review, 100, 674-701.
  4. Snyder, H. N., & Sickmund, M. (2006). Juvenile offenders and victims: 2006 national report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

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