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Juvenile Delinquency: Cause and Effect
By Ray E. Bilderaya
Published: 01/17/2005

There is little doubt juvenile violence is currently a prevalent issue and concern in the criminal justice field and there is a vital need for improvement in the effectiveness of rehabilitation programs for juvenile offenders. The age at which a juvenile can be labeled a delinquent may be from 6 to 12 years of age, but studies have shown that in the preschool years, early problem behaviors such as serious aggression and chronic violations of rules have been linked to later delinquent behavior.

Other signs in very young children that have shown to be possible predictors of later delinquent behavior are the lack of normal development in basic skills like language. Of course, not all children are appropriately labeled. What is considered normal behavior in a very young child can fit into any one of the categories mentioned in this article. 

Incidents of violence among juveniles has been rising steadily in the past 20 years and in the wake of significant increases in the severity of juvenile crime, we find that despite efforts at rehabilitation, recidivism among juvenile offenders is very high. Studies have shown that as many as 69 % of juvenile delinquent parolees are rearrested for serious crimes within six years of their release. Roughly half of all youth arrests are made on account of theft, simple assault and drug abuse.

In 1995 approximately 69 million people in the United States were under the age of 18. The projected juvenile population is expected to reach 74 million by the year 2010. This population growth may lead to an increase in the number of victims of crime by juveniles and an increased caseload in the juvenile justice system.

The juvenile population in 2010 will include a greater number of older juveniles and a greater proportion of minority issues related to juvenile violence. Demographic and environmental factors will be an important element to be monitored if current trends continue.

In major cities, a substantial number of 6th to 12th grade students have reported violence, crime, weapons and gang related activity in their schools.

Crimes of violence among youth can include fighting, rape and robbery. Juveniles between the ages of 12 and 17 are most likely to be victims of these, being significantly correlated with low grades, younger age of onset of sexual activity and a high desire for acceptance from peers. Exposure to violence and victimization has also been attributed to the cause of perpetration of violent crime by youth.

Youth on youth violence mainly involves assaults. People between the ages of 12 to 19 are most likely to be victims of assaults by people in the same age group. Reports of victims under age 12 are not normally considered in the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). If they were, this figure would be substantially higher.

Risk factors associated with youth violence can be environmentally related. Individual social and environmental risk factors should be taken into account as well. The causal status of known risk factors remains to be clarified, and no single risk factor can explain juvenile delinquency. Obviously, the more risk factors that are identified, the more likely a juvenile will exhibit delinquent behavior.

Social and community related risk factors include; the availability of drugs and firearms, community disorganization, and economic depravation. 

Certain demographic and environmental factors are taken into consideration when gathering information for statistical purposes. For example, studies have shown the majority of juvenile offenders come from families living in poverty, the highest percent being people of color or minority groups.    

Two specific aspects of the family environment and structure seem to recur in the literature on delinquency.  These may best be characterized as family type and family status.  Family type refers to the way the family interacts with one another, that is, levels of adaptability, cohesiveness, and communication between family members.       

Cohesion refers to the emotional attachment or bond among family members. There are four levels to the cohesion element: disengaged, separated, connected, and enmeshed. Families that are disengaged lack loyalty or closeness and are characterized by high levels of independence. On the other end of the scale is the enmeshed element, which is characterized by very high levels of closeness and dependency.

Family status refers to the composition of the family. Studies have shown that children from single parent and reconstituted families are more prone to problems than are children from traditional families. 

Family related risk factors include a family history of problem behavior, family conflict, and inadequate problem solving skills. Studies have shown that children of physically abusive parents are more likely to grow into abusive adults, coining the term, "cycle of violence". 
Parents that participate in criminal behavior are more likely to produce children that commit criminal acts.  Studies have also shown that a child's delinquent behavior has been associated with the arrest(s) of one or both of the parents.      

School related factors include low academic success and early, persistent antisocial behaviors. The most obvious indicators of potential violent behavior are the individual related risk factors. The most notable acts of violence are shootings in schools. The youth that have committed these violent acts had most, if not all the individual and peer related risk factors. Alienation, poor peer relations, impaired cognitive thinking ability and association with friends who engaged in problem behavior were the associated risk factors present.     

Because of acts of violence in schools across America, many states have adopted a zero tolerance approach to gun control, but that alone may not eliminate acts of violence from occurring.

Not all juveniles exposed to the noted risk factors become delinquents, school drop-outs, or teenage parents.  In contrast to the risk factors, other factors play an important part in the development of a child.  Certain protective factors can reduce the impact of risks or change the way a person responds to them.

Protective factors include: individual characteristics such as having positive social interaction and orientation, affectionate relationships with family members, teachers or other adults, and association with peer groups that harbor healthy beliefs and set clear standards and goals. 

Social and economic factors are also taken into account when determining the potential for violent or delinquent behavior.  Social structure theorists hold the belief that people do not behave on their own.  Instead, behavior is a result of participation in certain groups.  For example, youth gang members participate in deviant behavior in order to be accepted. Traditional criminological and sociological approaches view juvenile delinquency results from dysfunctional environmental conditions and hold that if youth are removed from this problematic environment, they will be better able to refrain from criminal activity.

Psychological factors that can contribute to or be related to impulsive, acting-out behaviors include certain mental illnesses, which have been directly correlated with criminal activity. Bipolar Disorder is associated with severe mood swings that cause an individual to act out during elevated or depressed periods in relation to others perspective of him/her.  Another disorder is a substance related disorder, which is closely related to Antisocial Personality Disorder.  This disorder is associated with the abuse of drugs, both over-the-counter and nonprescription.  Conduct Disorder can be both aggressive, where physical harm is caused or non-aggressive which results in property damage or loss.

Violence in itself is not a disorder.  It can be one of a number of behaviors used to diagnose mental illness based upon severity and circumstance. 

Programs have been established to aid in protective measures and assist families and children to learn methods of problem solving and to diminish delinquent behavior in youth.  Programs involve education, recreation, and community involvement.

Model educational programs have assisted families and children by providing them with information that informs parent on how to raise healthy children and teach children about the effects of drugs, gang involvement, sex, and weapons. These programs seek to instill young people with an awareness that will allow them to exercise discretion in decision making.

Recreational programs offer a way to fill unsupervised after school hours by allowing young people to interact with other adults and children. The Department of Education reports that youth are most likely to commit crimes between 2 pm and 8 pm. Youth recreation programs are designed to fit the personalities and skills of different children and may include sports, dancing, rock climbing, drama clubs, and others.

Community involvement programs include Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and church youth group activities. These programs helps to stop the feeling of alienation many teenagers have and ties them to the community they are a part of.

Visits by nurses in homes of families with infants have shown to be effective. Studies have shown that mothers and children involved in the program had a 79 % lower child abuse rate, a 56 % lower child runway rate and a 56 % lower child arrest rate.

Preventive programs that come in the form of therapy range from individual to family sessions.  Many therapists and program analysts hold that positive behavior should be taught at an early age in the home. 

A program identified by the Surgeon General as being effective at preventing juvenile delinquency early on is the Parent-Child Interaction Training Program. This program takes parents and children approximately 12 weeks to complete and incorporates a therapy model. It is designed to teach parenting skills to parents of children age two to seven who exhibit major behavioral problems. A therapist guides the parents and educates them as to how best to respond to their child's behavior, whether negative or positive. The program has been shown to reduce hyperactivity, attention deficit, aggression, and anxious behavior in children.

Some programs focus on elements in all aspects of a child's life--school, home, and parents whereby training is given to all three to build strong skills in order to motivate, encourage, and promote alternative thinking strategies.

A program put into place in schools is the Bullying Prevention Program.  Sparked by the suicide of three young boys in Norway, this program has since been implemented in the United States.  Bullying causes young people to act out in retaliation because of humiliation or fear.  The major goal of the program is directed at improving peer relations and making school a pleasant environment.  The program focuses on three elements: education, classroom environment, and individuals. School staff holds meetings with bullies, victims, and parents to ensure that the behavior stops.  In Norway, bullying has been reduced by 50 % or more in the two years following the start of the program.

Big Brothers and Sisters of America (BBSA), began early in the twentieth century as a means to provide firm, positive guidance to youth in need.  The obstacles of this program, however, are the committed number of adults available to serve as positive role models and the lack of resources.

When a youth enters the Juvenile Justice System, he / she have the opportunity to receive assistance from the state. In the care of the state, a youth may receive drug rehabilitation assistance, counseling and educational opportunities. The success of the Juvenile Justice System is measured by how well it prepares the youth to re-enter the community without committing other crimes.

The Nebraska Youth Correctional Facility (NYCF) is an example of a successful juvenile detention facility that gears its programs toward restoring delinquent youth. The facility holds young adult violent offenders and juvenile delinquent youth, the youngest being 15and the oldest 21 and 10 months. While in the facility, each inmate has the opportunity to obtain a General Education Diploma (GED) and take community college courses. Parents may follow the progress of their child through communication with the staff. The inmates at NYCF are also given the opportunity to work as teacher assistants, recreational leaders and kitchen staff.

Currently, Americans are steering away from hard core scare tactics such as "Scared Straight" and Boot Camp facilities. The "get tough on crime" philosophy of the 1990's seems to have gotten lost in the last ten years with a shift toward therapy or group based rehabilitation systems. The surgeon General reported that boots camps and other hard core disciplinary structured systems did not produce the desired results.

Information about child delinquency is inadequate at best because of underreported and a child going unnoticed until it is too late. Information and recognition of problematic behavior early on is crucial.

Children need to be taught rules, limits, and expectations early in order to live a healthy, productive life.  This includes discipline with consistency.  A parent must be willing to put forth the effort to learn the skills necessary and properly apply these skills to produce a non-delinquent child.

Most of the issues with youth today stem from a lack of structure, love, and support.  This is not to state that these elements should be part of a behavioral management program.  Instead, they should be the core of families across the nation.
About the Author:
Bilderaya lives in Colorado, has completed a B.S. in Criminal Justice Administration and is working on an MBA. He has worked in Corrections for 11 1/2 years and has served in many capacities during that time. During most of those years he has worked in Security and reached the level of Security Support Supervisor (Lt.) He has recently assumed the duties of  a Case Manager (Lt.)

       American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. (2001, March). Understanding violent  behavior in children and adolescents. Retrieved 5 February, 2002 from the Word Wide Web: http://www.aacap.org/publications/ractsiam/behavior:htm
       CDC Media Relations. (1999, April 21). Facts about violence among youth and violence in schools. Retrieved 30 March, 2003 from the World Wide Web: http://www.cdc.gov/ad/oc/media/fact/violence.htm
        FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, The.  (2000, March).  Implementing Juvenile Curfew Programs.  Retrieved 2 September, 2003 from the World Wide Web: http://dev.egloballibrary.com:2104/cf_0/m2194/3_69/61372308/print.jhtml
        Gale Encyclopedia of Childhood and Adolescence. Conduct disorders. Retrieved February 1, 2002 from the World Wide Web: http://www.hhdarticles.com/g2602/0001/260200155/pl/article.jhtml
         Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology.  (2000, August).  Influence of deviant friends on Delinquency: searching for moderator variables.  Retrieved August 31, 2003 from the World Wide Web: http://dev.egloballibrary.com:2104/cf_0/m0902/4_28/64825068/p1/article.jhtml?term=juv...
         Laver, J.W. (1993). Attention deficit disorder. Denver: Cleo Wallace Center.
         Loeber, Rolf, Farrington, David P., Petechuk, David.  Child delinquency.  (2003, May).  Child delinquency: early intervention and prevention.  Retrieved 2 September, 2003 from the World Wide Web: http://www.ojjdp.ncjrs.org    
         Trojanowicz, R.C., Morash, M & Schram, P.J. (2001). Juvenile delinquency: concepts and control. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.


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