Explaining Juvenile Delinquency

Even with an array of new problems facing the world today such as global warming, frightening advances in science and even the prospects of terrorism, crime and criminology has remained a solid subject of study. Many, many theories have been posited as to the causes of crime, particularly juvenile delinquency. These theories can be based in psychology and behaviorism, including media and entertainment influences. They can be based on cognitive theory, the thought processes and brain wiring of these young offenders.

They can be based on theories of personality, genetics and biology. However, some of the most promising research has arisen from the fields of sociology and social psychology. Theories of social disorganization and social strain seem to offer the most insight into the problems of juvenile delinquency. Both strain theory and the social disorganization theory offer, generally, that society plays some role in the development of the juvenile delinquent. Some theorists claim that crime is simply the result of a lack of self-control.

This is refuted by strain and disorganization researchers. Strain theories posit that certain forces or structures in society can contribute to crime by almost encouraging juveniles to commit crime, or at least not punishing them for it. Social disorganization theory contends that communities in chaos are unable to control crime. Both of these theories can explain the rise in juvenile delinquency. Strain theory refers basically to the types of stressors that society places on an individual.

This strain is the difference between the effort to achieve goals and the success of achieving them (Akers, 2000). This can occur in two ways:  the lack of positive stimuli and repeated exposure to negative stimuli. “Removal of positively valued stimuli usually occurs during adolescence when the stress of life is experienced through a family death or serious illness, or close friends or significant others are no longer able to offer benign advice” (Akers, 2000). As a result, the juvenile has no positive role models and must seek other alternatives.

In many cases, these alternatives are negative. According to Akers, “Confrontation with negative stimuli applies to adolescents more than any other age group when the individual is forced to continue exposure to negative actions” (2000). Akers is referring to having to live in a certain neighborhood, attend that particular school, and to constantly be around the same groups of individuals. If the juvenile is unhappy in this environment, a series of responses generally occurs. First, the unhappiness turns to anger which results in aggressive and criminal behavior.

In addition, these juveniles are certainly aware of how their environment differs from others and become frustrated and resentful at the apparent injustice of it. “It is natural for individuals to feel distress when they are denied just rewards for their efforts when compared to the efforts and rewards given to similar others for similar outcomes” (Akers 2000). Akers cites Agnew and White who found that delinquency of friends and peers had the greatest effect on the delinquency of another adolescent, mainly because of the forced interaction.

Additionally, these researchers found that the use of drugs, also linked to crime, seemed to represent an attempt to “manage the negative effect caused by strain” (Akers, 2000). It is easy to see how anger can result from stresses that plague these adolescents and how this can be converted to criminal activity. A similar theory holds that some societies are actually incapable of controlling crime. This body of ideas is known as social disorganization theory.

“A key theoretical proposition is that socially disorganized communities are less able to control the general behavior of residents, thus affecting delinquent and criminal behavior via attenuated social control” (Hoffman, 2003). This effect can be seen in two different ways. First, the effect can be seen on large scale levels, such as economics and ethnic levels, and on smaller scale levels such as residential, social and family groupings. If poverty or racial unrest creates disorganization in society, gangs and other pockets of crime can easily arise.

Thus, a community must have what is termed as “collective efficacy” or the “… ability to maintain order in public places” (Thabit, 2006). If the community could not accomplish this, criminal tendencies will erupt in three primary ways. First, people will move in and out of areas without much commitment to the neighborhood, causing its breakdown. Second, racial and ethnic groups create isolated groups which exacerbate problems between them, and third, the low tax base creates poverty situations in which people experience frustration and anger (Thabit, 2006). As a result, crime has a veritable Petri dish in which to arise.