III. Major Theories of Juvenile Delinquency
Any idea about the causes, extent, and correlates of juvenile delinquency is essentially a theory, such as equating juvenile delinquency with sin and violating God’s law. For more than two centuries, academic criminologists have developed a host of theories to explain juvenile delinquency. The major difference among them relates to the academic discipline in which the theorist was trained. The various disciplines, such as economics, psychology, and sociology, have differing assumptions about humans and human behavior, and these result in different conceptualizations about what causes juvenile delinquency. This section broadly examines theories of juvenile delinquency from economics, psychology, and—the most common theoretical approach—sociology.
Some of the earliest theories of juvenile delinquency were economic in their perspective. Economic theories are known as classical theories. They generally state that juveniles are rational, intelligent people who have free will, which is the ability to make choices. Young people calculate the costs and benefits of their behavior before they act. Delinquency is the result of juveniles imagining greater gains coming from breaking the law than from obeying it. In the same way, children and adolescents that skip school first weigh the likelihood of getting caught against the potential fun they will have. Similarly, juveniles who commit serious crime weigh the pleasure they imagine they will receive against potentially being arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and sent to prison. Since behavior is a conscious decision that youths make, they may be held responsible for their choices and their consequences.
One of the major figures in classical theory is Cesare Beccaria (1764-1963), who formulated his ideas about crime control during the 18th century when the criminal justice systems throughout Europe were cruel and ruthless and exercised a callous indifference toward human rights. People were punished for crimes against religion, such as atheism and witchcraft, and for crimes against the state, such as criticizing political leaders. Worse yet, “offenders” were rarely told why they were punished. No one was exempt. Any person could be hauled off to jail at any time, for any reason. Wealthy persons were generally spared the most torturous and degrading punishments, which were reserved for ordinary citizens who sometimes were burned alive, whipped, mutilated, or branded.
These conditions inspired Beccaria to write an essay titled “On Crimes and Punishments,” where he laid the framework for a new system of justice that emphasized humanity, consistency, and rationality. According to Beccaria, the system would follow these principles:
- Social action should be based on the utilitarian principle of the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
- Crime is an injury to society, and the only rational measure of crime is the extent of the injury.
- Crime prevention is more important than punishment. Laws must be published so that the citizenry can understand and support them.
- In criminal procedure, secret accusations and torture must be abolished. There should be speedy trials, and accused persons should have every right to present evidence in their defense.
- The purpose of punishment is to prevent crime. Punishment must be swift, certain, and severe. Penalties must be based on the social damage caused by the crime. There should be no capital punishment. Life imprisonment is a better deterrent. Capital punishment is irreparable and makes no provision for mistakes.
- Imprisonment should be widely used, but prison conditions should be improved through better physical quarters and by separating and classifying inmates as to age, sex, and criminal histories.
Another important classical theorist was the English economist Jeremy Bentham who, observing that people naturally seek pleasure and avoid pain, believed that the “best” punishment was one that would produce more pain than whatever pleasure the offender would receive from committing the crime. In other words, punishment must “fit the crime,” and no single punishment was always best. Instead, a variety of punishments should be used.
Today, classical theory is generally known as rational choice theory, which again asserts that people are rational and make calculated choices regarding what they are going to do before they act. Juvenile delinquents collect, process, and evaluate information about the crime and make a decision whether to commit it after they have weighed the costs and benefits of doing so. Juvenile delinquency represents a well-thought-out decision whereby delinquents decide where to commit the crime, who or what to target, and how to execute it.
Psychological theories explain juvenile delinquency with individual-level constructs that exist inside of all people and interact with the social world. For instance, behavioral theory proposes that behavior reflects people’s interactions with others throughout their lifetime. A leading behaviorist was the psychologist B. F. Skinner (1953), who theorized that children learn conformity and deviance from the punishments and reinforcements that they receive in response to their behavior. He believed the environment shapes behavior and that children identify those aspects of their environment they find pleasing and which ones are painful; their behavior is the result of the consequences it produces. He concluded that children and adolescents repeat rewarded behavior and terminate punished behavior.
Similarly, Albert Bandura (1977) argues that learning and experiences couple with values and expectations to determine behavior. In his social learning theory, Bandura suggests that children learn by modeling and imitating others. For example, children learn to be aggressive from their life experiences and learn aggression in different ways—for instance, by seeing parents argue, watching their friends fight, viewing violence on television and in movies, and listening to violent music. What children learn is that aggression is sometimes acceptable and can produce the desired outcome. The ideas of Skinner and Bandura would later be adopted by sociologists.
According to psychodynamic theory, unconscious mental processes that developed in early childhood control the personality, and these mental processes influence behavior, including juvenile delinquency. The main author of this theory is Sigmund Freud (1925), who theorized that the personality consists of three parts: the id, ego, and superego. The id, which is present at birth, consists of blind, unreasoning, instinctual desires and motives. The id represents basic biological and psychological drives and does not differentiate between fantasy and reality. The id also is antisocial and knows no rules, boundaries, or limitations. If the id is left unchecked, it will destroy the person. The ego grows from the id and represents the problem-solving dimension of the personality. It deals with reality, differentiates it from fantasy, and teaches children to delay gratification because acting on impulse will get them into trouble. The superego develops from the ego and is the moral code, norms, and values the child has acquired. The superego is responsible for feelings of guilt and shame and is more closely aligned with the conscience. In mentally healthy children, the three parts of the personality work together. When the parts are in conflict, children may become maladjusted and ready for delinquency. Freud did not write specifically about delinquency. However, he did influence criminologists, who took his ideas and applied them to the study of crime. The lasting importance of Freud and psychodynamic theory is evidenced in the way that early childhood experiences and mental processes have figured prominently in studies of human behavior.
The psychological theory that most explicitly matches the thinking patterns and personality of the individual with his or her subsequent involvement in juvenile delinquency is psychopathy. Psychopathy is a clinical construct that is usually referred to as a personality disorder defined by a set of interpersonal, affective, lifestyle, and behavioral characteristics that manifest in wide-ranging antisocial behaviors. The characteristics of psychopathy read like a blueprint for juvenile delinquency. Psychopathic persons are impulsive, grandiose, emotionally cold, manipulative, callous, arrogant, dominant, irresponsible, short-tempered individuals who tend to violate social norms and victimize others without guilt or anxiety.
Psychopathy is a controversial theory, and much disagreement centers on whether the theory should be applied toward children and adolescent delinquents. At the heart of psychopathy is the complete lack of feeling for other people evidenced by callous-unemotional traits, remorselessness, and the absence of empathy. Psychopathic persons do not experience the feelings that naturally inhibit the acting out of violent impulses, and their emotional deficiency is closely related to general under-arousal and the need for sensation seeking. Because of this inability to morally connect to other people, psychopathic persons are distinct from other offender groups. Research has also shown that the callous and unemotional traits that are indicators of psychopathy are present early in life during childhood, and these traits are mostly genetic in origin. In this way, psychopathy does not just implicate the personality and character of a person but also his or her genes.
Sociological theories of juvenile delinquency point to societal factors and social processes that in turn affect human behavior. Unlike other explanations, sociology explains people’s behavior using characteristics beyond the individual. Mostly, sociological theories assert that certain negative aspects of neighborhoods and society in general serve as structural inducements for young people to resort to juvenile delinquency. In this way, sociological theories tend to ignore or deny individual-level psychological differences that might partially explain who engages in delinquency.
One of the most prominent sociological theories is the social disorganization theory developed by Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay (1942), who suggested that juvenile delinquency was caused by the neighborhood in which a person lived. Instead of focusing on individual traits, Shaw and McKay studied the impact of the kinds of places, such as neighborhoods, that created conditions favorable to delinquency. They discovered that delinquency rates declined the farther one moved from the center of the city. They reached this conclusion after dividing Chicago into five concentric circles or zones. At the center was the Loop, the downtown business district where property values were highest (Zone I). Beyond the Loop was the zone of transition (Zone II) containing an inner ring of factories and an outer ring that included places of vice, such as gambling, prostitution, and the like. Zones III and IV were suburban residential areas, and Zone V extended beyond the suburbs. Delinquency rates were highest in the first two zones and declined steadily as one moved farther away from the city center.
Neighboring railroads, stockyards, and industries made Zone II the least desirable residential area, but also the cheapest one. Because of this, people naturally gravitated to this area if they were poor, as many new immigrants to the United States were. What did these findings say about juvenile delinquency? Shaw and McKay interpreted the findings in cultural and environmental terms. The rates of juvenile delinquency remained stable in certain Chicago neighborhoods, regardless of the race or ethnicity of the people who lived there. Areas that were high in juvenile delinquency at the turn of the 20th century were also high in juvenile delinquency several decades later, even though many of the original residents had moved away or died. Shaw and McKay explained juvenile delinquency via the following four points.
First, run-down areas create social disorganization. Cities such as Chicago were expanding industrially, their populations were increasing, and segregation was forcing new immigrants into the slums. These immigrants were not familiar with the city’s geography or culture; they arrived with different languages and work experiences; and they immediately faced new and overwhelming problems, including poverty, disease, and confusion.
Second, social disorganization fosters cultural conflicts. In low-delinquency areas of the city, there typically was agreement among parents on which values and attitudes were the “right” ones, with general consensus on the importance of education, constructive leisure, and other child-rearing issues. Local institutions, such as the PTA, churches, and neighborhood centers, reinforced these conventional values. No such consistency prevailed in high-delinquency areas. The norms of a variety of cultures existed side by side, creating a state of normative ambiguity, or anomie (cultural conflict). This condition was aggravated by the presence of individuals who promoted an unconventional lifestyle and defined behaviors such as theft as an acceptable way to acquire wealth. This value system could count on the support of criminal gangs, rackets, and semi-legitimate businesses.
Third, cultural conflict allows delinquency to flourish. Children raised in low-socioeconomic, high-delinquency areas were exposed to both conventional and criminal value systems. They saw criminal activities and organizations in operation daily. Successful criminals passed on their knowledge to younger residents, who then taught it to even younger children. Delinquency became a tradition in certain neighborhoods through the process of cultural transmission, where criminal values are passed from one generation to the next. Fourth, allowed to flourish, delinquency becomes a full-time career. Children in these Chicago neighborhoods dabbled in initially trivial forms of juvenile delinquency, but their acts became increasingly serious and prone to gang delinquency.
Edwin Sutherland (1947) developed differential association theory, which is one of the most popular and enduring theories of juvenile delinquency. The theory consists of nine principles. First, Sutherland asserted that delinquent behavior is learned and not inherited. Biological and hereditary factors are rejected as explanations for the cause of delinquency. Only sociological factors explain why youth commit delinquency. Second, delinquent behavior is learned through interaction with others by way of communication. The communication can be either verbal or nonverbal. Third, learning occurs in intimate groups. It is in small, face-to-face gatherings that children learn to commit delinquency. Fourth, in small, intimate groups, children learn techniques for committing crime, as well as the appropriate motives, attitudes, and rationalizations. The learning process involves exposure not only to the techniques of committing offenses, but also to the attitudes or rationalizations that justify those acts. Fifth, the specific direction of motives and drives is learned from definitions of the legal code as being favorable or unfavorable. The term definitions refers to attitudes.
Sixth, a juvenile becomes delinquent due to an excess of definitions favorable to the violation of law over definitions unfavorable to the violation of law. This sixth principle is the core of the theory. A parent who even hints through words or actions that it is acceptable to fight, treat women as potential conquests, cheat on income tax returns, or lie may promote juvenile delinquency in children unless these statements are outnumbered by definitions or attitudes that favor obeying the law—for example, driving the speed limit. Definitions favorable to the violation of law can be learned from both criminal and noncriminal people.
Seventh, the tendency toward delinquency will be affected by the frequency, duration, priority, and intensity of learning experiences. The longer, earlier, more intensely, and more frequently youths are exposed to attitudes about delinquency, both pro and con, the more likely they will be influenced. Sutherland used the term intensity to refer to the degree of respect a person gives to a role model or associate. Thus, correctional officers are not likely to become criminals despite the positive things inmates say about living a life of crime. The reason is that officers do not respect the inmates and therefore do not adopt their beliefs, values, and attitudes.
Eight, learning delinquent behavior involves the same mechanisms involved in any other learning. While the content of what is learned is different, the process for learning any behavior is the same. Ninth, criminal behavior and noncriminal behavior are expressions of the same needs and values. In other words, the goals of delinquents and nondelinquents are similar. What is different are the means they use to pursue their goals.
Decades of research supported the general claims of differential association and what is more broadly known as social learning theory. One of the strongest indicators of juvenile delinquency, for example, is the number of delinquent peers that an individual has. Youths that do not have delinquent peer associations tend not to be involved in juvenile delinquency. On the other hand, youths with many delinquent friends, such as adolescents that are involved in delinquent gangs, are significantly likely to commit status and delinquent offenses.
The other major sociological theory of juvenile delinquency is social control theory. This theory can be traced to 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who believed that human beings are naturally aggressive, argumentative, shy creatures in search of glory that would naturally use violence to master other men, their wives, and their children. This profile described all men, not simply criminals. In Hobbes’s view, human beings were basically bad and at the very least, self-interested at the expense of others. Because of their fundamentally “bad” nature, a strong state or government was needed to strike fear into their hearts and punish them severely when they broke the law. Twentieth-century criminologists expanded upon Hobbes’s ideas and created social control theory. These theorists assumed that without controls, children would break the law. From this perspective, juvenile delinquency was expected behavior. Rather than look for factors that push children into delinquency, the purpose of social control theory is to identify the factors that stop, insulate, or prevent children from participating in delinquency in the first place. In social control theory, what must be explained is why most children conform to society’s rules most of the time. It is taken for granted that children break rules. The real question is, why do children not commit crime?
Arguably the most important social control theory is Travis Hirschi’s (1969) version, which is called social bond theory. A social bond describes a person’s connection to society and consists of four elements: attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief. Each component of the social bond forms its own continuum, ranging from low to high. When the continua are merged, they provide a gauge of how strongly a person is tied or bonded to society. The stronger the bond, the less likely the youth will commit juvenile delinquency. Hirschi asserted that the best predictor of delinquent behavior was a youth’s attachments to parents, schools, and peers, which are the primary agents of socialization. Decades of criminological research have consistently reported that children who are strongly tied to parents are less likely to become delinquent. In addition, their positive feelings promote acceptance of the parents’ values and beliefs. These children avoid juvenile delinquency because such behavior would jeopardize their parents’ affection. Belief in the moral validity of law also has been found to reduce the likelihood that a juvenile will commit crime. Hirschi maintains that in the United States, there is one belief system that centers on conventional values. From this perspective, there are no subcultures that regard theft and assault as proper and permissible, which is contrary to the claims of cultural deviance theories. Belief in the moral validity of law does seem to reduce the likelihood of committing crime.
The commitment component of the social bond is about success, achievement, and ambition. Social bond theory proposes that ambition or motivation to achieve keeps juveniles on the “straight and narrow” path because they know that getting into trouble will hurt their chances of success. In other words, children have a stake in conformity. The more time and energy they have invested in building an education, a career, or a reputation, the less likely they will risk their accomplishments by committing juvenile delinquency. Research examining the importance of commitment has reported that children who are more heavily invested in conventional activities are less likely to be delinquent.
Involvement in conventional activities has been seen as a way of preventing juvenile delinquency as illustrated by the popular phrase “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” The notion that people need to be involved in society and otherwise kept busy has inspired politicians and city planners to call for more and better playgrounds and afterschool sports programs to keep children off the streets. If these facilities are available, young people will have less time to engage in delinquent behavior. Unfortunately, involvement does not have as much impact on preventing delinquency as other components of the bond to society. This is because delinquency is not a full-time job. It requires so little time that anyone, no matter how involved in conventional activities, can find time for juvenile delinquency if he or she wants to.
There are many other theories of juvenile delinquency stemming from an array of academic disciplines. But the fields of economics, psychology, and sociology have been the most visible disciplinary starting points for understanding why young people commit criminal acts.