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I. The Study of DelinquencyJames F.Short, Jr


II. Sociological AspectsStanton Wheeler


III. Psychological AspectsWilliam McCord


IV. Delinquent GangsJackson Toby



Juvenile delinquency is that behavior on the part of children which may, under the law, subject those children to the juvenile court. As such, it is a relatively new and legal term for a very old phenomenon.

The term has both precise and diffuse referents. When a child is designated a juvenile delinquent by the court, this is a precise definition of his legal status. He is, by this act, a ward of the court, subject to its discretion. By contrast, except in a strictly legal sense, the term refers only vaguely to actual behavior, since what is delinquent varies greatly over time and from one part of the world to another.

Delinquency as legal status

Concern with misbehavior by children is at least as old as recorded history. The earliest known code of laws (the Code of Hammurabi) took specific note of the duties of children to parents and prescribed punishments for violations. As legal systems were elaborated, the age of offenders continued to be important in defining responsibility for criminal behavior. Ancient Roman law and English common law, for example, held that children under the age of seven were incapable of criminal intent and, therefore, of responsibility for crime; between age seven and the time of puberty (approximately), criminal responsibility was a matter for determination by the courts. When responsibility was assumed or “proven,” however, children of any age were subject to the same laws and the same courts as were adults. It was this fact, and the related concern for the welfare of children rather than for specific types of behavior engaged in by errant youngsters, that motivated the early reformers to urge the passage of juvenile court legislation.

The establishment of the first juvenile court in Cook County, Illinois, in 1899 climaxed many years of legal and humanitarian concerns for the welfare of children held to be in violation of the law and concerns with the criteria by which they might be so adjudged (Van Waters 1932). This legislation created a new kind of machinery, outside the criminal law, for handling juvenile offenders. Every state in the United States and virtually all “modern,” or “developed,” societies have since established special legal procedures for han dling juvenile offenders. Juvenile delinquency has emerged as a social problem only recently in some areas of the world, but there is evidence even in “new nations” and “underdeveloped countries” of increased concern with problems of youth under the law.

The defining features of the juvenile court are its informality, as compared to the rigorously formal procedures of the criminal court with its rules of evidence and adversary system, and its primary concern with the welfare of the child rather than with guilt or innocence. Under the law, and following the ancient doctrine of parens patriae, the court, as the agent of the state, has the right and the responsibility to intervene in cases of child need, including those where violation of the law is involved or likely to be involved. However, there is no unanimity over the world concerning the precise conditions under which courts may intervene. United Nations reports suggest that there is a tendency in many countries to broaden the jurisdiction of the courts to include children who for various reasons are considered to be potentially delinquent, as well as those directly in violation of the law. This tendency, and the lack of rigorously defined rules of “due process” by which a juvenile may be deprived of his liberty or a family of its children, has led to great and widespread concern with the rights of children and their parents.

The flexibility urged as essential to the proper functioning of the court confers great power on juvenile court judges. Concern with the rights of children and parents arises in countries with strong democratic political philosophies, not because miscarriage of justice is probable but rather because it is possible. Hence, a dilemma is built into the structure of juvenile courts: how to provide the discretion and flexibility necessary to the prevention of delinquency and the rehabilitation of delinquents while at the same time preserving due process under the law [seePenology].

Patterns of delinquency

The legal status of “juvenile delinquent” is important in defining, but does not fully encompass, the social role of “juvenile delinquent.” That is, a youngster who has been taken into custody by the police, or committed to an institution, or otherwise disposed of by the court is likely to be defined as a delinquent by many people—his parents, friends, neighbors, teachers, or employers. The legal process, whether or not it officially defines a youngster as delinquent, may be important in establishing and reinforcing both the community’s and the individual’s definition of himself as a delinquent (Tannenbaum 1938). These, in turn, may be important factors in determining the nature of his subsequent experience, and hence the likelihood that he will engage in behavior that is considered delinquent.

Many youngsters take part in activities defined by the statutes as delinquent but are not detected or, if detected, are not brought to the attention of legal authorities. And some of these youngsters, who have not been legally designated as delinquent, are defined as delinquent by others significant to the community and to themselves. The behavioral sciences are concerned with the nature of delinquent behavior, whether or not that behavior has resulted in legal action. For purposes of scientific inquiry delinquency may be defined as behavior that is specified by law as grounds for an adjudication of delinquency, and delinquents as those young people who engage in such behavior.

The very broad specifications of behavior defined by the statutes as delinquent (some do not define delinquency in behavioral terms at all) give rise to the question: Who is not delinquent? The question is important, however, only if we assume that there are only two classes of children—“delinquent” and “nondeliquent”—that need to be described and understood. In reality, children vary in a great many ways in the types of delinquent behavior in which they engage and in the relative frequency, regularity, and versatility of such behavior. In other words, there are different patterns of delinquent behavior and different degrees of involvement in them. Social scientists are interested both in processes accounting for the development of the behavior of youngsters and in the manner in which behavior comes to be defined as delinquent.

The data of delinquency. Official counts of delinquents, or “offenses known,” are limited in the extent to which they can contribute to knowledge concerning the extent and nature of delinquency or of the processes involved in becoming delinquent. They represent the actions of officials rather than of young people, and legal rather than scientific concepts of behavior. They provide little information about the characteristics of offenders or their behavior. The very flexibility of legal processes concerned with juveniles calls into question the comparability of official data from one jurisdiction to another. Despite these limitations, for some purposes official data are useful, and they are in any case the only data available for describing certain characteristics of the phenomena. They are particularly useful as reflections of official concern with juvenile delinquency over time, within and between societies. Sellin and Wolfgang (1964) have demonstrated that among broad groups of individuals (police, judges, and college students) there is wide spread agreement concerning the perceived seriousness of many crimes; they propose that the seriousness of delinquency problems in different communities and over time be measured from police descriptions of delinquency events that are most likely to be officially recorded. Certainly, variations in official handling of offenders, by age, sex, and other theoretically meaningful categories, reflect varying degrees of social concern with the behavior of young people. In addition, they may provide crude indexes of the behavior of children, which are reliable perhaps only with respect to the most serious types of behavior, for these will most consistently be officially recorded.

Because of the limited usefulness of official data for treatment and etiological purposes, agencies and projects devoted to these ends also generate large bodies of data concerning delinquents. These take three principal forms: clinical reports, usually in the form of intensive case studies, which result from detailed interviews in a clinical setting, with treatment as the primary object of data collection (Hewitt & Jenkins 1947); self-reported behavior, obtained by completion of questionnaires by individuals or by interviewers, with research the primary object of inquiry (Short & Nye 1957–1958; Reiss & Rhodes 1961); and reports of participant and field observation made both by persons interested in treatment or prevention and by those committed primarily to scientific inquiry (Whyte 1943; Miller 1958).

The methodology of delinquency studies has been subject to extensive criticism (Hirschi & Selvin 1962). While it is true that most studies in any substantive field exhibit methodological weaknesses, the field of juvenile delinquency has perhaps been especially vulnerable in this respect. The more fundamental problem has not been methodological, however. Rather, delinquency studies have tended to lack both methodological and theoretical rigor because they have not been associated with the mainstream of behavioral science developments. This was not so much the case in the 1920s and early 1930s, when delinquency studies were an important part of the “Chicago school” of developing urban sociology. Following this period of intensive activity, the empirical study of delinquency dropped off sharply and was largely uninformed by the main body of sociological thought. Clinical studies also lacked the discipline of systematic inquiry, and their impact on sociological interpretations was minimal and marginal. Sociological theory concerning delinquency was greatly stimulated by the publication of Albert Cohen’s Delinquent Boys in 1955. Still, empirical inquiry lagged until grants from private and federal agencies made possible investigations of sufficient scope to contribute markedly to the development of knowledge in this field. Passage of the Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Offenses Control Act by the Congress of the United States in 1961 focused unprecedented public attention on juvenile delinquency and provided additional impetus for large-scale social action and research programs directed at the acquisition of new knowledge concerning juvenile delinquency and its control.

Age and sex differences. Throughout the world juvenile court cases tend to be in the older age categories specified by law. Official cases of delinquency thus tend to be a phenomenon of adolescence and young adulthood rather than of childhood. In countries that have experienced increases in delinquency, however, the average age of court appearance has tended to decrease. As services to delinquents and “potential” delinquents become more elaborate, younger children are brought before the court in the interest of delinquency prevention as well as rehabilitation.

In most countries young people are involved in a high proportion of property offenses. In the United States, offenses for which persons under the age of 18 contribute more than one-half of the arrests annually are typically auto theft, burglary, and larceny. Concern is great in some countries over the involvement of juveniles in crimes of violence, in the general disregard for social order, as in cases of property destruction and mass rioting, and in the use of alcohol and narcotics.

Boys and girls are not equally involved in delinquency, and sex ratios are not the same for all types of delinquency. The ratio of boys to girls appearing before juvenile courts is very much related to the over-all social structure of a society, as well as to variations within it. As the social status of women approaches that of men and women gain greater freedom to participate in the affairs of the larger society, socialization patterns in the family and other institutions change and more girls come to the attention of the courts. Present ratios in the United States, for example, are about five boys to each girl; this is a considerable decrease since the early 1900s, when ratios of 50 or 60 to 1 were common. Sex ratios tend to be lower among groups, and in areas, with high delinquency rates. Since World War ii increasing proportions of female offenders have been noted especially in Japan and Turkey, where the emancipation of women has proceeded with considerable rapidity.

Boys tend to be arrested for offenses involving stealing and mischief of one sort or another. And while studies indicate that more boys than girls engage in illicit sex behavior, far higher proportions of girls are arrested and brought to court for sex offenses and for other offenses, such as running away, incorrigibility, and delinquent tendencies, which very often involve problems of sex behavior.

Ecological variations. There appears to be a direct relationship between urbanization and juvenile delinquency. Although it is not always true that urban areas with the largest populations and highest densities have the highest delinquency rates, urban areas tend to have higher rates than do “semiurban” areas, and these areas, in turn, have higher rates than do rural areas. Exceptions within the general pattern, at least in the United States, modify but confirm it. Thus, rural areas and smaller communities that are near urban centers have been shown to have higher delinquency rates than do those that are further removed from such centers. Similarly, delinquency rates in relatively less populated areas have been found to be directly related to the size of their nearest urban center. Other studies have found higher proportions of preadolescent and female offenders in more urbanized areas.

Within cities, juvenile delinquency tends to be concentrated in areas characterized by extreme physical deterioration, poverty, and social disorganization. These areas have been called “delinquency areas” because they have been found to be characterized by high delinquency rates and high rates of recidivism over time; they are usually areas in which major shifts have taken place in racial and ethnic residential composition (Shaw & McKay 1942). In high-rate as compared with low-rate areas, age at first delinquency of youngsters appears to be lower, and proportions of female offenders are higher. Organized vice and political corruption flourish in high-rate areas, but there are important variations in these respects between delinquency areas (Kobrin 1951).

Delinquency and race. Racial and ethnic groups have been shown by many studies to have widely varying delinquency rates. Numerous studies have found greater variation within than between these groups, however, depending especially on the type of community areas in which they are located. Newly arrived ethnic groups characteristically locate in high delinquency areas, and their delinquency rates reflect this fact. When these ethnic groups move to areas with lower delinquency rates, their rates become lower. Variations in this pattern serve only to confirm the hypothesis that the amount of delinquency in a racial group is a function of its basic socioeconomic position. Negroes in the United States, despite some improvements in socioeconomic position (which are reflected in variations in delinquency rates within the Negro population), for many years have had high delinquency rates. These rates are closely associated today, as they have been historically, with high rates of unemployment and economic uncertainty and with family disorganization. By contrast, the Chinese in the United States have had very low delinquency rates. These have been associated with strong family and community organization and with the relative isolation of Chinese Americans from the mainstream of life in the United States.

The association of poverty with high delinquency areas and studies of the socioeconomic background of offenders have led to much speculation concerning the influence of social stratification patterns on young people. Studies suggest that both delinquency rates and the type of delinquency vary in different ecological areas. Delinquency rates even of middle-class and upper-class persons are higher in high-rate areas than in low-rate areas.

International trends

No source of data is adequate for the determination of how much delinquency there is in any country, much less for comparison of the volume of delinquency today with that of the past, or from one country to another. It is evident that public concern with the problem has increased in most countries, especially since World War ii. Such published reports as are available from countries involved in both world wars indicate that delinquency rates increased during the conflicts (Middendorff 1960; U.S. Children’s Bureau 1962; U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation 1966).

Although a few countries reported stabilized or slightly decreasing delinquency rates during the late 1950s, these reports carried the caution of uncertainty. By contrast, most European countries, Japan, and the United States reported startling increases during this period, and reports filtering out of Russia, China, and various underdeveloped but rapidly changing countries, such as Ghana and Kenya, indicated a high level of public concern and probably actual increases in the incidence of juvenile delinquency. The United Nations has attempted to promote better standards of data gathering and reporting and to arrive at some international consensus as to the volume and nature of delinquency throughout the world.

Delinquency rates in the more technologically and economically advanced countries appear to be the highest in the world. Studies of the relation between delinquency rates and cycles of economic depression and prosperity have yielded inconsistent results (Bogen 1944; Fleisher 1963; Glaser & Rice 1959; Gibbs 1966). In large cities of these same countries high delinquency rates are associated with poverty, as reflected in ecological distributions and rates for persons in different social classes, but in smaller communities delinquency appears to be more evenly distributed throughout the class structure. There is growing interest, but little evidence, concerning increases in delinquent behavior on the part of “middle-class” youngsters in prosperous and technologically advanced countries.

Delinquent subcultures

Just as age, sex, ethnic, and social class distributions of those who come to the attention of authorities for delinquent behavior vary by ecological setting, so also the forms that delinquency takes have characteristic ecological distributions. Far more than delinquency that occurs in the midst of mass rioting, for example, gang delinquency tends to be concentrated in high delinquency areas.

Variations in gang organization and behavior are well documented (Thrasher 1927). There has been much speculation and some research on the existence of regularities amidst such variability. The concept of “delinquent subcultures” has been introduced, in part to describe and in part to account for the forms taken by gang delinquency. Here we are concerned with classifications of delinquency as descriptive categories and with what is known about them.

The term “delinquent subcultures” refers to delinquent behavior, with supporting norms, values, and structures, which is traditional among members of a group or several groups of young people (Cohen 1955). Although Cloward and Ohlin (1960) and others have suggested the following classification of delinquent subcultures, the extent to which concrete subcultures can be clearly differentiated in these terms is still uncertain. Conflict subcultures are described as consisting of networks of gangs engaged in periodic disputes over local territory (as within a particular neighborhood), real or imagined insults, proprietary interests in girls, etc. Criminal subcultures are oriented toward economic advantage by illegitimate means, through planning and organization, which often involve marketing arrangements and protection from police interference. The gang and these arrangements with adults are characteristic organizational features of criminal subcultures, in contrast with the networks of gangs making up conflict subcultures. Retreatist subcultures seek esoteric experience, or “kicks,” as in the use of drugs, or participation in “deviant” sexual behavior; here gang organization is subordinated to subcultural forms of experience, regardless of group identity. These three types of subcultures are described as involving chiefly lower-class males, although females are acknowledged to participate in each to some extent (Rice 1963; Short & Strodtbeck 1965).

Middle-class delinquency of a subcultural nature has also been hypothesized; it is said to involve deliberate courting of danger and excessive consumption of alcohol, but with less violence than is found in lower-class subcultures. There are also collective forms of delinquency that are neither gang oriented nor supported by a subcultural system. Of particular note are the mass riots of adolescents that have accompanied public concerts or motion pictures of teen-age “idols” in various Western countries [Middendorff 1960; see alsoDelinquency, article ondelinquent gangs]. While these are not common, when they have occurred their “epidemic” character, within countries and from one country to another, suggests the actions of “expressive crowds” which at times have been transformed into “acting crowds” bent on destruction [seeCollective behavior]. Higher proportions of leaders than of followers in these crowds have been found to have previous records of delinquency. Participation has ranged broadly across the social class spectrum, however, and involves many youngsters without previous or subsequent participation in delinquency.

A second type of elementary collective behavior involving occasional delinquency has accompanied the spring holidays of students in various countries. Here property destruction and the defiance of adult authority and conventional morality also occur with a considerable element of spontaneity and collective excitement. Delinquency is not the object of those who participate, but it is a frequent result.

There is little research documenting the existence or the nature of delinquent subcultures or other collective forms of delinquency. On the basis of reports from several Western countries, the following conclusions seem warranted concerning subcultures and gangs:

(1) Delinquent gangs exist in many cities and are responsible for much theft, property damage, and violence against persons (themselves and others).

(2) Most but not all countries report that such gangs are especially common among youngsters in the most depressed socioeconomic areas of larger cities and in low-rent housing projects, which in many countries have been built to alleviate housing conditions for lower-class families.

(3) More boys than girls are members of gangs, and boys are the acknowledged leaders, but girls frequently participate and, when they do, often “instigate” delinquent episodes. Sex relations within the gang most commonly occur between boys and girls who are “going steady,” although shifts often occur in such alliances. Marriages, both common-law and legally formalized, frequently occur between gang boys and girls, but the courtship system is not exclusive for either, and many prefer mates who have not participated in any gang, or at least not in their own.

(4) It is evident that youngsters who participate in gangs gain status within the gang as a result of their participation, and in many cases they enjoy the notoriety of gang exploits that results from mass media coverage of delinquent episodes. The mass media thus help to perpetuate, and perhaps to create, both gangs and delinquent subcultures, for it is partially through their coverage of delinquent episodes that delinquents come to know of one another, and gang reputation as a status criterion is enhanced.

(5) Delinquent behavior by gangs is episodic in nature, and, except in rare instances, not all gang members participate in any given episode. Observation suggests that those youngsters who are core members of gangs, particularly those who occupy positions of leadership or are striving to do so, are most likely to be involved in a given episode.

(6) Gang size and structure vary greatly, but gangs with more than fifty members are relatively rare; structure tends to be weak and fluid; and the cohesion of gangs is weak except in times of crisis.

(7) The elaboration of gang “nations” through rough age-grading (senior, junior, midget, peewee branches of a larger gang) or across neighborhood or community lines (East Side and West Side branches, etc.), according to published reports, has occurred only in a few large cities of the United States (New York and Chicago, in particular).

(8) Similarly, hypothesized delinquent subcultures (conflict, criminal, retreatist) appear to exist in relatively pure form only in these large U.S. cities. European studies do not report them. From the United States, fragmentary evidence suggests that in rural areas and in small towns, and in larger cities without the huge concentrations of disadvantaged ethnic populations together with abject poverty such as exist in New York and Chicago, group delinquency does not assume the specialized forms described as delinquent subcultures.

This is not to say that delinquency in other areas may not be subcultural in nature. It seems likely, both theoretically and empirically, that in many instances it is. Youngsters who “get into trouble” in any local institutional context tend to know one another and, through such processes as exclusion from circles of nontroublemakers, the search for solutions to common problems, and mutual attraction, they tend to be thrown into interaction with one another (Empey & Rabow 1961). Legal definitions seem crucial, for they provide a common identity of those processed, for themselves and for others.

In summary, the concept of delinquent subcultures requires greater theoretical and empirical specification. Whether it will prove to be a viable concept will depend upon demonstration of utility not otherwise provided by such concepts as personality, group and community process, collective behavior, and concepts of social class subcultures.

Class, personality, and group process

Discussions of collective patterns of delinquency are couched largely in terms of the position of lower-class adolescents in the social structure. Community and group-process variables, which are more immediate in the experience of individuals and groups, provide a possible linkage between theories couched in terms of social structural variables and those based on personality considerations.

Thus, Miller (1958) describes gang delinquency as a manifestation of various lower-class “focal concerns,” such as trouble, toughness, smartness, excitement, fate, and autonomy. Similarly, Cloward and Ohlin (1960) describe relations between adolescents and adults at the community level as crucial in determining the nature of collective delinquent behavior on the part of juveniles. But in neither case are personality variables integrated either theoretically or empirically with social and cultural concepts.

The group has been described as the context of much delinquency, and Cohen (1955), especially, has stressed its catalytic nature by virtue of which more extreme behavior occurs than otherwise would be likely on the part of participating individuals. More recently, in experimentally manipulated groups in treatment cottages and in gangs in their natural community settings, such group processes as role playing and status striving have been found to be involved in the precipitation of delinquency episodes (Short & Strodtbeck 1965). Recruitment to particular group roles may prove, in part, to be a function of individual personality characteristics.

Role performance is likely also to be linked in important ways to personality. The observation that gang leaders often react to status threats by leading or attempting to lead the group in delinquency episodes is a case in point. It seems likely that what is considered threatening will in important ways be determined by the experience and the personality configuration of the individual leader. It can hardly be doubted that personality considerations, in addition to role and situational elements, are involved in a broader spectrum of delinquent behavior.

Psychological types of delinquents. Several psychological types of delinquents have been proposed. The classification with perhaps the greatest amount of theoretical and research specification is that which describes three major types and discusses their social correlates (Reiss 1952; cf. Hewitt & Jenkins 1947). The relatively integrated delinquent, characterized by adequate personal controls, accounts for nearly two-thirds of the boys classified. This offender often is a member of an organized group and characteristically resides in a high delinquency area; his family socialization is conventional and reasonably adequate. In contrast, the relatively weak ego delinquent is described as an insecure, internally conflicted, and anxious person. His offense pattern characteristically includes property destruction and other aggressive acts, but not gang membership. The defective superego delinquent has failed to internalize conventional standards of conduct and is, instead, oriented toward deviant groups. His offense pattern, like that of the integrated delinquent, typically involves property offenses and aggressive behavior in a gang context. He is described as having been socialized in a broken home characterized by much conflict and nonconventional behavior.

Repeated attempts to demonstrate that there is a “delinquent” personality type have failed. The few studies that have employed control groups have compared “delinquents” with “nondelinquents,” without regard for more subtle differences in delinquency involvement. On the basis of such studies, it appears that delinquents are characterized by greater aggressive tendencies and less neuroticism than are nondelinquents (Glueck & Glueck 1950).

The relation between various personality characteristics and processes, on the one hand, and patterns of delinquency involvement, on the other hand, is unclear, theoretically and empirically. Viewed as a special case of collective adaptations by young people generally, this relation is one of the most significant unknowns in the behavioral sciences.

James F. Short, Jr.

[See alsoCrime, article oncauses of crime; Deviant behavior.]


Bogen, David 1944 Juvenile Delinquency and Economic Trend. American Sociological Review 9:178–184.

Cloward, Richard A.; and Ohlin, Lloyd E. 1960 Delinquency and Opportunity: A Theory of Delinquent Gangs. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Cohen, Albert K. (1955) 1963 Delinquent Boys: The Culture of the Gang. New York: Free Press.

Empey, Lamar T.; and Rabow, Jerome 1961 The Provo Experiment in Delinquency Rehabilitation. American Sociological Review 26:679–695. → A discussion by E. P. Schwartz appears on pages 695–696.

Fleisher, Belton M. 1963 The Effect of Unemployment on Juvenile Delinquency. Journal of Political Economy 71:543–555.

Gibbs, Jack P. 1966 Crime, Unemployment and Status Integration. British Journal of Criminology 6:49–58.

Glaser, Daniel; and Rice, Kent 1959 Crime, Age, and Employment. American Sociological Review 24:679–686.

Glueck, Sheldon; and Glueck, Eleanor 1950 Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency. New York: Commonwealth Fund.

Hewitt, Lester E.; and Jenkins, Richard L. 1947 Fundamental Patterns of Maladjustment: The Dynamics of Their Origin. Springfield, III.: Thomas.

Hirschi, Travis; and Selvin, Hanan C. 1962 The Methodological Adequacy of Delinquency Research. Unpublished manuscript, Univ. of California, Survey Research Center.

Kobrin, Solomon 1951 The Conflict of Values in Delinquency Areas. American Sociological Review 16: 653–661.

Middendorff, Wolf 1960 New Forms of Juvenile Delinquency: Their Origin, Prevention and Treatment. New York: United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

Miller, Walter B. 1958 Lower Class Culture as a Generating Milieu of Gang Delinquency. Journal of Social Issues 14, no. 3:5–19.

Reiss, Albert J. Jr. 1952 Social Correlates of psychological Types of Delinquency. American Sociological Review 17:710–718.

Reiss, Albert J. Jr.; and Rhodes, Albert Lewis 1961 Delinquency and Social Class Structure. American Sociological Review 26:720–732.

Rice, Robert 1963 The Persian Queens. New Yorker October 19:153–187.

Sellin, Thorsten and Wolfgang, Marvin 1964 The Measurement of Delinquency. New York: Wiley.

shaw, Clifford R.; and Mckay, Henry D. 1942 Juvenile Delinquency and Urban Areas: A Study of Rates of Delinquents in Relation to Differential Characteristics of Local Communities in American Cities. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Short, James F. Jr.; and Nye, F. Ivan 1957–1958 Reported Behavior as a Criterion of Deviant Behavior. Social Problems 5:207–213.

Short, James F. Jr.; and Strodtbeck, Fred L. 1965 Group Process and Gang Delinquency. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Tannenbaum, Frank (1938) 1963 Crime and the Community. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Thrasher, Frederic M. (1927) 1963 The Gang: A Study of 1,313 Gangs in Chicago. Abridged and with an introduction by James F. Short, Jr. Univ. of Chicago Press. → A revised edition of Thrasher’s classic work, with a new introduction which appraises recent de velopments in theory and research on delinquent gangs.

U.S. Children’s Bureau 1962 Juvenile Court Statistics: 1961. Washington: Government Printing Office.

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Van Waters, Miriam 1932 Juvenile Delinquency and Juvenile Courts. Volume 8, pages 528–533 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

Whyte, William F. (1943) 1961 Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian Slum. 2d ed., enl. Univ. of Chicago Press. → Contains an extensive methodological statement.


Theories of delinquency causation can best be understood as a part of the social context in which they are developed. Two features of that social context seem crucial to an understanding of current theories. First, most of the systematic explanatory efforts have come from the United States, where a pragmatically oriented social science developed early in the twentieth century and has continued to flourish. Thus, despite the historically important theoretical works (Lombroso 1899; Bonger 1905) and systematic treatises on criminology (Hurwitz 1947) contributed by European scholars, as well as the growing number of careful empirical studies from Scandinavia (Christie 1960), England (Morris 1958), and other European countries, most of the systematic theories continue to reflect the dominant trends in American social science. Second, within American social science the subject matter of delinquency has been a primary concern of sociologists, who have done most of the research and written most of the texts, and a secondary but still important concern of psychologists; it has received less attention from the other social science disciplines.

Theories of delinquency causation

The following review of five theoretical emphases will illustrate the range of current efforts to understand the causation of delinquency. It will omit work done primarily from within a biological or physiological perspective, as well as that done within a psychoanalytic framework.

Psychogenic theories

Since shortly after the turn of the century a number of essays and studies have located the causal processes of delinquency within the individual delinquent. Many of these contributions have come from clinical experience with delinquent youths. The central argument is that delinquency is a “solution” to psychological problems stemming primarily from faulty or pathological family interaction patterns.

The research and theoretical interpretations of Healy and Bronner (1936) provide an excellent example of this approach. These investigators systematically compared delinquent youths with their nondelinquent siblings. The most important difference between them was that over 90 per cent of the delinquents, as compared to 13 per cent of their nondelinquent siblings, had unhappy home lives and felt discontented with their life circumstances. The nature of the unhappiness differed: some felt rejected by parents; others felt inadequate or inferior; others were jealous of siblings; still others were affected by a more deep-seated mental conflict. But whatever the nature of the unhappiness, delinquency was seen as a solution. It brought attention to those who suffered from parental neglect, provided support from peers for those who felt inadequate, and brought on punishment for those who sought to reduce guilt feelings. This study, though published in 1936, is still the prototype of studies following what may be called a psychogenic model, that is, studies that search for the causes of delinquency in the psychological make-up of the delinquent, which typically stems from specific styles of family interaction.

Later studies in this tradition have more clearly identified detailed aspects of family relations that seem important, but they have not altered the fundamental point of view. McCord, McCord, and Zola (1959) found that among youths from areas of low socioeconomic status, delinquents differed from nondelinquents in the extent of parental rejection and in the inconsistency of punishment and discipline. Bandura and Walters (1959) gathered detailed interview data from adolescents with records of highly aggressive actions and compared them with a control sample of nondelinquents. Their investigation suggested that the delinquent youths differed from the nondelinquent controls relatively little in their relationship with their mothers but that they had much less identification with their fathers. In addition, discipline was meted out in a harsher manner within the families of the delinquents. Also, the more aggressive, delinquent boys had poor relations with their peers, while the boys with more healthy family relations had stronger peer relations as well.

In the interpretations of these studies, the psychogenic model is clearly in operation: unfortunate, unhappy family circumstances lead to personal psychological problems of adjustment for the youth, which in turn are in some way solved by the commission of delinquent acts. Attention focuses on the boy, his family, and their problems. Delinquency is assumed to be a form of reaction to the problems.

Sociogenic theories

At about the time that Healy and Bronner and others were studying the psychogenic sources of delinquency, social scientists at the University of Chicago were impressed by the force of culture and social disorganization in a rapidly expanding city filled with immigrants and other minorities. In a series of investigations of crime rates in the urban area, it was found that rates of delinquency were stable from one period to another, that the largest percentage of youths committed their delinquencies in companionship with others, and that a series of sociocultural characteristics were typically associated with the areas where high rates were found. These characteristics included rapid turnover of population; a sizable portion of the land used for industrial buildings; high rates of minority-group membership; and high rates of social disruption as reflected in broken homes, suicide, alcoholism, and related problems. The studies of Thrasher (1927), Shaw and McKay (1942), and Shaw and Moore (1931) report both evidence and argument in line with this tradition.

In the face of these characteristics, it was natural for students of delinquency to see important causes residing not in the youth’s family alone but in the cultural context of his home and neighborhood. In such areas a boy’s “natural history” was to participate in delinquent careers (Shaw 1929). No specific psychological block seemed necessary; patterns of delinquent and criminal action were all around. Joining in those patterns would be natural for all except those restrained by close family life or by strong ties to conventional community institutions such as the school.

In this research tradition the key concept for understanding why youths became delinquent was association with other youths already delinquent. This was later put most clearly by Sutherland, who developed the theory of differential association (Sutherland & Cressey 1960). This theory asserts that youths become delinquent to the extent that they participate in settings where delinquent ideas or techniques are viewed favorably: the earlier, the more frequently, the more intensely, and the longer the duration of the youths’ association in such settings, the greater the probability of their becoming delinquent. Unlike the psychogenic theories this set of ideas focuses on what is learned and who it is learned from rather than on the problems that might produce a motivation to commit delinquencies. Support for this theory has been found both in studies using the method of self-reported delinquent behavior (Clark & Wenninger 1962; Akers 1964) and in those using official crime data (Reiss & Rhodes 1964).

Theories of delinquent subcultures

At least until the early 1950s the two perspectives reviewed above were the dominant forms of theories attempting to link individuals with delinquency. In the decade of the 1950s, however, attention was drawn to organized-gang activities more insistently than in the past. Partly this was because of an apparent increase in the amount of violence and crime engaged in by such groups, and partly because it seemed to reflect the nearly universal importance of the gang in industrialized countries. In any event, there were enough differences between the formally organized gangs studied and reported on during the 1950s and the somewhat looser aggregates usually referred to in the earlier studies to generate a new series of theoretical efforts focused on the organized street gang.

The central concept that emerged to encompass the phenomenon of the gangs was that of the delinquent subculture. The concept “culture” refers to the set of values and norms that guide the behavior of group members; the prefix “sub” indicates that these cultures often emerge in the midst of a more inclusive system. Delinquent subculture refers, then, to a system of values and beliefs encouraging the commission of delinquencies, awarding status on the basis of such acts, and specifying typical relationships to persons who fall outside the delinquents’ social world.

Several variations of the theory of subcultures have been formulated, each of which provides a distinctive way of locating the nature of the delinquent patterns, the sources that give rise to the patterns, and the functions the patterns serve for the groups where they are found. Leading statements of this theory include those of Cohen (1955), Cloward and Ohlin (1960), and Miller (1958). Variations or modifications have been suggested by Yablonsky (1962), Bordua (1961), and Spergel (1964). Detailed review of the various ideas cannot be provided here, but it is important to note the central line of argument, for it has something in common with both of its predecessors. Like the more general sociogenic theories, the sources of the problem are found in the nature of the social structure and the particular patterns of neighborhood and community life where delinquent gangs abound: high population density, low socioeconomic status, high rates of family disorganization. No matter how the particular argument is framed, there is agreement on the general source of delinquent subcultures within the broader context of urban slum life.

Unlike those involved in earlier sociogenic work, most subculture theorists have been unwilling to rest with the concept of differential association and the explanatory power it provides. Like the psychogenic theorists, they have seen the formation of delinquent gangs and subcultures as a reaction to the problems caused by low social status in a world where high status is valued and yet where access to the means to high status is relatively unavailable to them. In this feature, the explanatory model derives from the more general theory of deviant behavior and anomie (Merton 1938).

The situational delinquent

The theories outlined above have one quality in common. In all of them delinquency is viewed as having deep roots. In the psychogenic tradition these roots lie primarily within the individual, while in the sociogenic tradition they lie in the structure of the society, with emphasis either on the ecological areas where delinquency prevails or on the systematic way in which the social structure places some individuals in a poor position to compete for success. But no matter where the emphasis is laid, it is clear that in these theories delinquency is a serious business, requiring for its prevention or correction a fundamental reorganization of the psyche, the social structure, or the culture.

The conception of the situational delinquent provides a different perspective. Here, the assumption is that delinquency is not deeply rooted, that the motives for delinquency are often relatively simple. And if they are not so deep, then perhaps their causes do not lie in the deeper recesses of the psyche and the social order but are closer to the immediate contingencies of action in the everyday world. Such a conception of the nature of delinquent motives forces a closer examination of the immediate social context of delinquency and of the problems of adolescent youth rather than of the more distant problems of achieving middle-class status from lower-class origins.

This conception is receiving increased attention from students of delinquency. It is partially reflected in the provocative treatment by Matza (1964a; 1964b), who restores the concept of “will” to the study of delinquency and argues persuasively that potential and actual delinquents assess risks and engage in rationalizations in much the manner suggested by the traditional criminal law. He notes, for example, that when delinquents offer excuses for their acts, the excuses bear a close resemblance to those provided within the traditional law of crimes. And he emphasizes the shifting, transitory character of delinquent acts and actors.

Other students reflect a similar perspective in varying degrees. In one of the principal empirical studies of gang delinquency, sociologists James Short and Fred Strodtbeck (1965) began with the orientations suggested by the conception of a delinquent subculture but became increasingly persuaded of the necessity to study immediate group process and interaction. Briar and Piliavin (1965) provide further argument in favor of a situational approach.

Delinquency and secondary deviation

Tannenbaum (1938) suggested years ago that the formation of delinquent careers owed much to the stigma and labeling associated with the processing of delinquents by the police, courts, and other agencies. Since almost all adolescents engage in some form of delinquency, the interesting explanatory problem may be why some continue and others do not. Lemert (1964) speaks of secondary deviation to refer to the deviant acts that appear to have as their cause the limitations placed on normal functioning by the prior definition of the person as a deviant. The strong suggestion is that the development of a disciplined delinquent career is a response to the labeling and stigma that result from official treatment as a deviant. Whatever the source of the initial delinquent act, the labeling and stigma that result from the official processing provide important new stimulus toward delinquency, for the actor is invited, implicitly, to assume a delinquent role.

This emphasis directs attention to an underdeveloped area in the general theory of deviant behavior, the analysis of the deviant’s response to the organized system of social control (Cohen 1965). In the case of delinquency there are still no definitive studies that clearly trace the consequences of official sanctions per se on the later conduct of the delinquent. The theoretical emphasis on secondary deviance points strongly to the need for such studies.

Social definitions of delinquency

In all of the theoretical schemes traced thus far, the emphasis remains on the delinquent and the forces that move him toward or away from delinquency. Yet one of the most interesting features of delinquency is the way it is socially defined by conventional people. Unlike some of the more traditional areas of criminal law, the concept of delinquency is only vaguely spelled out in legislation. The result is that much room is open for discretion in the designation of conduct patterns as “delinquent/’ This discretion is in the hands of police and judicial officials, with the result that delinquency is in a very real sense a product of the interaction between adolescents and officials and cannot easily be understood by focusing on only one side of the interaction (Wheeler 1965).

Thus, theories of delinquency are beginning to be concerned with the conduct of officials, since that conduct is an integral part of the official labeling of persons as delinquent. Political scientist James Q. Wilson has found, in comparative studies of police administration carried out in the mid-1960s, that variations in the juvenile arrest rate in two different cities may be largely a function of differences in the nature and type of police organization in the cities. These differences are not merely a function of differing degrees of police efficiency; rather, they reflect differences in what is conceived to be delinquent conduct. This view requires a radical reconstruction of theories of delinquency, one that focuses jointly on the behavior, background, and social setting of the delinquent and on the behavior, background, and social setting of those who are officially charged with responding to delinquency. This perspective, of course, is not limited to delinquency. It is equally applicable to a broad range of deviant behavior patterns (Becker 1963; Cicourel & Kitsuse 1963).

Limitations of current theories

Among the many problems and issues facing all those who would develop systematic theories of delinquency causation, the following seem most important.

Adequacy of data. The theories reviewed above all suffer heavily from a lack of adequate supportive data. Most of the theories require for their test the gathering of information about adolescents that is of a type not routinely collected by the official agencies that deal with youth. This is perhaps most true of the theories that emphasize collective enterprise among delinquents, as well as situational elements and structures. Record-keeping systems are designed to report individual acts of delinquency and typically provide very little information about the surrounding social context. It is an especially demanding and exacting enterprise to gather systematic data of a type that bears closely on the truth value of the various theories.

Reconciling divergent perspectives. The several perspectives described above may each be valid, but for differing sectors of the adolescent population. Delinquency is a blanket concept that of course conceals a variety of different types of delinquent acts. One way of harmonizing the various perspectives is to note their applicability to different types of delinquents. Hewitt and Jenkins (1947) have provided one such typology, Reiss (1952) has provided another, and Gibbons (1965) has reviewed a variety of such efforts for both delinquents and adult offenders.

Still another way of reconciling the divergent perspectives is to assume that they interact under appropriate conditions to produce delinquency. While most students would agree with Cohen’s critique (1955) of multiple-causation theories as inadequate, most would also agree that the several processes described above may interact to produce effects that no one of them would produce operating alone. One or two empirical studies, for example, show the joint effects of socioeconomic status and family pathology on delinquency (Stanfield 1966). Yet this area of research is still grossly underdeveloped.

Practical implications. A seemingly important practical consequence of a theory of delinquency causation is that it might suggest action strategies for the prevention or control of delinquent conduct. Although the action implications of some of the above theories have never been spelled out clearly, there are at least a few instances in which preventive programs have developed (Powers & Witmer 1951; Miller 1962; Mobilization for Youth, Inc. 1961). Although it is too early to draw firm conclusions, most investigators would agree that the programs to date have not proved effective. A chief problem remains to spell out clearly the practical implications of the theories, to design preventive or corrective programs that embody those ideas, and to provide careful empirical tests of the results when the theories are applied.

Cross-national studies. The theories treated here find the causes of delinquency within the family, the neighborhood, the community, or in one’s location in the social order. They do not relate delinquency directly to the forces of mass society itself. Yet it is the burden of argument of much serious social criticism and broader social theory that the problems ought to be couched at the level of mass society itself. The modern bureaucratized world, it is argued, produces a broad malaise, a sense of alienation from work and community, a loss of identity, and a decline in meaningful experience. The resulting anomie leads to many deviant reactions, among them delinquency.

These ideas are too broad and general to constitute a theory of delinquency that is subject to careful empirical test, but it is fitting to close this article by noting that problems of delinquency are indeed common to most of the industrialized world. A grave limitation of current theories lies in the absence of a genuine cross-national focus upon delinquency. Despite the technical problems that arise in cross-national research, it seems an essential ingredient if our theories are not to be highly limited in their scope and explanatory capacity.

Stanton Wheeler

[Directly related are the entriesCrime, article oncauses of crime ; Criminology; Deviant behavior. Other relevant material may be found inAdolescence; and in the biography ofSutherland.


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Principles of Criminology. 6th ed. New York: Lippincott. → First published in 1924 as a textbook, Criminology, under the sole authorship of Edwin H. Suther-land.

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Ironically, as nations grow richer and the opportunities for youth multiply, juvenile delinquency seems to increase steadily. In almost every society, of course, adults have complained about the presumed immorality of children. Even Socrates in the fifth century B.C. sounded an alarm about the “delinquents” of his time. Editorialists today echo Socrates’ opinion, but in our era, laments about the condition of young people may have more to sustain them.

Incidence of delinquency

While every statistic in the measurement of crime remains open to doubt, there seems little reason to deny that delinquency grows as a society becomes industrialized and urbanized (Bloch & Geis 1962). In England, for example, the best studies indicate that burglaries committed by delinquents climbed almost 200 per cent between 1938 and 1961; sex offenses, by about 300 per cent; and violent crimes by an astounding 2,200 per cent (Mays 1963). The United States, that classical arena for crime, exhibits a similar trend: juvenile crimes have gone up since 1940 by about 93 per cent (Bloch & Geis 1962, p. 186). These statistics refer only to officially recognized crimes. Many juvenile offenses remain undetected or, if recorded, go unpunished. Indeed, as John Mays’s studies have shown, virtu-ally every child in certain urban areas has participated in a wide range of delinquent activities even though only 10 per cent or 15 per cent of the youthful population are recognized by the courts as delinquents (Mays 1963).

Using official definitions of delinquency, it appears that as a society progresses materially, crime increasingly becomes the prerogative of youth. Thus, in the United States during the 1950s, crimes committed by boys under eighteen increased six times as rapidly as crimes committed by adults. By 1961, American children accounted for 8 per cent of the arrests for murders, 20 per cent of rapes, 51 per cent of burglaries, and 62 per cent of auto thefts. As many as one-fifth of American boys between the ages of ten and seventeen have appeared before courts or have been arrested by police (Bloch & Geis 1962).

Every affluent nation faces a similar problem. Juvenile crime has grown immoderately during the last fifty years and has outdistanced the rate of many types of adult crime. To understand this phenomenon requires some comprehension of the relation of culture, social structure, and early environmental experiences as they combine to produce psychological types prone to delinquency. The first step toward such knowledge is to review briefly the great fund of knowledge concerning the characteristics of delinquents.

General characteristics

Psychological studies of delinquents have traditionally been concerned with how delinquents differ from nondelinquents in intellectual structure, physiological constitution, and personality characteristics.

Intellectual structure of delinquents

In 1912, Henry H. Goddard initiated research on the intelligence of delinquents (Goddard 1921), and his original endeavors stimulated hundreds of similar studies. Goddard administered a crude test of intelligence to incarcerated delinquents and found that 50 per cent were “feeble-minded.” Later research appeared to confirm this result. Edwin H. Sutherland, for example, surveyed 340 studies of delinquents conducted up to 1928 (Sutherland 1931). He reported that these studies found that from 50 per cent to 20 per cent of delinquents were feeble-minded.

More recent research utilizing more sophisticated tests has, however, tended not to support the earlier studies. L. A. Siebert, for example, tested 8,003 court cases. The average IQ of these delinquents was 91.4, slightly below the national average (Siebert 1962). Caplan, who has reviewed contemporary evidence, concludes that delinquents differ from nondelinquents only by approximately eight points on standard intelligence tests (Caplan 1965). This inconsequential difference can be explained in a number of ways: more intelligent delinquents may escape detection by the police, or perhaps the fact that the tests are normally administered in a stressful situation (such as a juvenile reformatory) may affect the performance of delinquents.

While the general intelligence of delinquents does not differ significantly from that of nondelinquents, there may be specific cognitive functions where differences exist. Wechsler has found that delinquents usually score higher on “performance” tasks than on those which require verbal skill (Wechsler 1939). This characteristic seems, however, to be a reflection of the lower socioeconomic status of delinquents, rather than specifically of their criminal activities (Caplan 1965). Baker and Sarbin have found that delinquents utilize a relatively limited number of cognitive categories in viewing the outside world (Baker & Sarbin 1956). In consequence, they are less able to tolerate ambiguities, less able to predict the behavior of others, and tend to deal with other human beings as if they were simply “mirror images” of the delinquents themselves. [See Intelligence and intelligence testing.]

Physique and physiology of delinquents

A number of investigators have long been concerned with examining the constitution of delinquents, on the assumption that certain physical traits might determine the character and actions of the delinquent. Lombroso may be considered the founder of this school of thought. He believed that delinquents were “moral idiots” who differed from normal men in basic and inborn physical characteristics (Lombroso 1899). Goring and others have subsequently disproved Lombroso’s specific claims (Goring 1913), but more sophisticated researchers have found evidence to support the belief that the physique of delinquents differs from that of nondelinquents. These investigators have compared the total body structure of delinquents and nondelinquents and have found, generally, that delinquents tend more often to be “mesomorphs” (relatively muscular, tightly knit people). Work by Sheldon (Sheldon 1949) and by the Gluecks (Glueck & Glueck 1950) supports this view. The Gluecks, for example, found that 60 per cent of their sample of delinquents could be typed as mesomorphs. Although the matter remains in great dispute, there seems, on the whole, to be sufficient evidence to conclude that delinquents are more often mesomorphic. Such a finding may, of course, be interpreted in a number of different ways. Some scholars contend that mesomorphy may be considered as a reflection rather than a cause of delinquency, since obviously most delinquent acts require a fairly muscular physique. Other scholars would attribute greater significance to the research findings and would contend that the bodily constitution is a basic causal factor (e.g., mesomorphs, at birth, are presumably more aggressive; as they grow up, this higher level of aggression may push them toward delinquency). [See Psychology, article onconstitutional psychology.]

Other investigators have been concerned with various specific neurological and physiological functions of delinquents. Lindner, for example, has noted that a high proportion of delinquents under-react to painful stimuli (Lindner 1942/1943). Stafford-Clark has found that delinquents exhibit more signs of physical immaturities or “developmental anomalies” than do nondelinquents (Stafford-Clark et al. 1951). The Ostrows, as well as other investigators, have reported that delinquents have more indications of neurological disorders than does a normal population (Ostrow & Ostrow 1946). These various results can again be interpreted in several ways. It could be that the higher rate of physical disorders is simply a result of environmental deprivation, or it may be that, in some cases, a physiological malfunction plays a causal role in producing delinquency.

Personality characteristics of delinquents

Many psychologists have been concerned with defining the particular personality traits which lead people to become delinquents. Siegman in Israel found, for example, that delinquents are highly “present-oriented” and do not plan for the future (Siegman 1961). In a series of studies Hathaway and Monachesi have utilized the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory to delineate various personality patterns of delinquents (Hathaway & Monachesi 1953). They have shown that many delinquents are emotionally disturbed, but equally important, that certain types of emotional disorder are negatively correlated with delinquency.

Dinitz and his colleagues have longitudinally studied a group of boys who had been exposed to social influences which, under usual circumstances, produce delinquency (Dinitz et al. 1958). The delinquents in this group were less “socialized,” less responsible, and more often perceived themselves as likely “to get into trouble.”

While these studies are highly provocative, the evidence suggests that there is no single personality pattern which characterizes all delinquents, or even a majority of delinquents. In 1950, Schuessler and Cressey reviewed 113 investigations and concluded that delinquency and specific personality traits were not related (Schuessler & Cressey 1950). More recently, Quay has examined the literature and decided that there are particular types of delinquents who differ from each other and have distinctive personality characteristics (Quay 1965). To understand fully the psychological aspects of delinquency, then, it is necessary to examine each of these various types.

Types of delinquency

With some precision and a degree of practical utility, juvenile delinquents can be categorized into three general classes: the socialized delinquent, the neurotic delinquent, and the psychopathic delinquent. Each of these types exhibits certain traits that distinguish it from the other types and from nondelinquents. Since the background and treatment of each variety of delinquent differs, an understanding of youthful crime should commence with an examination of these differences.

Socialized delinquency

The socialized delinquent has been analyzed by such researchers as Albert J. Reiss, R. L. Jenkins, and Lester Hewitt (Reiss 1952; Hewitt & Jenkins 1947). Indeed, most research on delinquency has concentrated on this type—and rightfully so, since socialized delinquents account for the great majority of crimes. The socialized delinquent does not suffer from any particular psychological disorders, other than those which characterize the typical adolescent. His crimes are not motivated by deep-seated anxieties or unresolved conflicts, but rather by a simple desire to conform to the norms of his gang. Typically, such a boy comes from a transitional urban area where a gang subculture has become entrenched. In his immediate social environment, delinquency has evolved into an accepted, even honored, pattern of life, a legitimate way of achieving prestige in the juvenile community. Often, in early childhood the socialized delinquent joins a gang and imbibes the values and habits of a delinquent subculture. Put most simply, in the fashion of Edwin Sutherland, the child learns to become criminal through “differential association” with delinquents (Sutherland & Cressey 1924).

One should not conceptualize the process of be-coming a socialized delinquent, however, as just a matter of chance learning. Only certain children seem to be drawn toward a gang culture. Specifically, as many pieces of research have demonstrated, the socialized delinquent seems to be produced by a frustrating and inconsistent familial background. Compared with noncriminal children, the socialized delinquent has most often been raised in a family characterized by parental conflict, rejection, or neglect (Glueck & Glueck 1950). In such a family, the child finds that his elemental needs for self-esteem, security, and emotional warmth are frustrated. Not unnaturally, he searches for alternative ways of fulfilling his basic needs, and, if he lives in a delinquent neighborhood, the gang offers him a very “live” option. Typically, too, the socialized delinquent has been reared in a home characterized by a lack of supervision and erratic discipline. In consequence, he has not internalized the usual middle-class standards that could immunize him from delinquent influences in his broader social environment.

Such a child adopts the ethic and customs of the gang as a means of assuring himself the sense of importance and security denied him in other ways. The gang can offer him acceptance and guidance.

As socialized delinquents reach adulthood, the majority shed the pattern of criminal behavior: at least 60 per cent stop their criminal behavior by the age of 21 (McCord et al. 1959). This reformation is largely spontaneous and unaffected by society’s conscious attempts to bring about change. It would seem to be due to the simple process of aging and entering new social roles. By adulthood, the socialized delinquent typically leaves his original home and neighborhood; he undertakes new responsibilities as a father, husband, and wage-earner. Thus, he escapes the influences that led him to delinquency and adopts new social roles that are inconsistent with membership in a juvenile gang.

Neurotic delinquency

The neurotic delinquent suffers from deep anxiety, intense insecurity, and, often, pervasive guilt. For such a boy, criminal behavior is a way of expressing an unresolved conflict and offers a release from anxiety. His behavior stems from deeply imbedded psychological causes rather than from a simple acceptance of a gang culture as a means of winning prestige. Unlike the socialized delinquent, the neurotic child often commits his crimes alone and usually commits only a single type of crime. His behavior exhibits a compulsive quality that is often absent in socialized delinquents. The juvenile arsonist, sexual offender, or narcotics addict usually comes from the ranks of neurotic delinquents. The motives behind the neurotic’s crimes are varied and difficult to comprehend. The arsonist, for example, may set fires because of exhibitionistic desires; the neurotic burglar may commit his offenses because the act of burglary offers him sexual release (Abraham-sen 1960).

Although their specific characteristics and backgrounds differ markedly, neurotic delinquents generally emerge from a more middle-class, conventional environment than do socialized delinquents. Their families exhibit severe emotional strain, and their parents are usually neurotic or psychotic. Some studies have described the neurotic delinquent as possessing a “relatively weak ego” and as tending to isolate himself from other people, particularly other children (Hewitt & Jenkins 1947).

Because their reformation depends upon a profound reorientation in character, neurotic delinquents more often continue their criminal behavior into adulthood than do the typical gang delinquents.

Psychopathic delinquency

The psychopathic delinquent is relatively rare but, from society’s point of view, perhaps the most dangerous of young criminals. The psychopath’s distinguishing traits are (1) his inability to form a lasting emotional relationship with other human beings and (2) his almost total lack of guilt, remorse, or inhibition. Unlike the neurotic delinquent, the psychopath does not suffer from internal conflict or anxiety. Unlike the socialized delinquent, the psychopath does not find emotional satisfaction in gang membership. The psychopathic delinquent commits a wide gamut of crimes and has a remarkably high rate of recidivism. Almost all investigations of psychopaths’ en vironments indicate that they have been raised in homes characterized by extreme parental brutality, neglect, discord, and intensely severe discipline. Many have come from foster homes or orphanages. They have seldom, if ever, experienced a warm, loving relationship with other human beings, and they seem to lack the capacity for affection. Quite often, the psychopath suffers from a neurological disorder, perhaps of a type that decreases his ability to inhibit impulses (Mccord & Mccord 1964). [SeePsychopathic personality.]

Summary. Each of the above types of delinquent reacts to particular pressures operating in his environment: the socialized delinquent seeks guidance and security from the gang; the neurotic delinquent uses crime as a release from intolerable anxiety; the psychopathic delinquent fails to internalize the usual social norms, even those of a delinquent subculture. While it is difficult to specify the exact forces that produce each type of delinquent, social science has progressed to the point where one can propose some generalizations about causal forces.

Modern civilization and delinquency

As has been noted, all types of juvenile delinquency increase as industrialization and urbanization proceed. Industrial societies as a group greatly exceed “primitive” societies in their rate of crime. And within the class of economically affluent countries, the rate of delinquency correlates rather closely with the degree of industrialization. Thus, the United States, as the most economically advanced nation, leads all other countries in the commission of crimes by juveniles. What is there in the nature of modern civilization—particularly in North American culture—that creates this increasing criminal proclivity? Among the many explanations that have been offered, the following theories have gained prominence.

Depersonalization and anonymity

As urbanization increases, the “face-to-face” social controls of traditional society begin to lose their importance. In a rural, economically stagnant, village-based society, every person is subject to the scrutiny of his immediate community. In an urban environment, however, human relationships become more depersonalized and anonymous. The person feels, and is, freer to act as an individual rather than as a member of a closely knit community. One consequence of this greater freedom may well be that the individual feels less inhibition about experimenting with various forms of deviant behavior, including crime. [SeeAlienation.]

Increased mobility

Modern societies provide greater opportunities for social and geographical mobility. In the United States, for example, one out of every five families changes its place of residence each year. One obvious result of such mobility is that families in modern societies do not maintain the same continuous ties with their neighbors as do people in more traditional, stable societies. This depersonalization of communal relationships may also weaken the social controls exercised over children and thus contribute to a high incidence of delinquency. [SeeMigration; Social mobility.]

Increased family disorganization

The nature of family life apparently changes as industrialization goes forward. The extended kinship system gives way to a smaller “nuclear” family. For a variety of reasons, the stability of the family also seems to decline. In the United States in 1900, one divorce occurred for every fourteen marriages. In the contemporary period, one marriage in every five ends in divorce. Because of the well-established correlation between familial discord and juvenile delinquency, one would expect that the higher rate of familial disorganization in modern societies would be reflected in more juvenile crime.

Frustration of goal achievement

As Merton has suggested (1949), modern civilizations-particularly the United States—are characterized by an almost universal goal of individual achievement. Everyone is encouraged to seek material success, but society does not offer equal means to all for fulfilling this goal. The lower-class child, denied the chance of competing successfully, may turn to deviant channels for achieving his goals. According to this hypothesis, delinquency will be highest in societies that inculcate individualistic aspirations in all people but fail to provide equality of opportunity.

In modern industrialized civilizations, people live in a fast-moving, exciting atmosphere—in a society broken into atomized, mobile, and depersonalized groups. Traditional social controls lose their influence. The emphasis on competition puts extreme pressure on those individuals who have the least chance of success: for example, ethnic minority groups and members of the lower class. In consequence, an increasing proportion of youths turn to delinquent behavior.

Social factors

Within an industrialized civilization, the chance that a child will become delinquent varies considerably according to his particular social position. Among the more important of these variations, one should note the following contrasts.

Sex differences

Boys have a much higher rate of delinquency than do girls. In most modern societies, approximately five times as many males as females become juvenile offenders. Aside from the obvious differences in physical strength, several social factors account for this contrast.

Parsons (1949) has noted that boys in an industrialized society are traditionally reared by their mothers. Compared with children in peasant families, they have relatively little opportunity to identify with their fathers or to copy masculine forms of behavior. At the age of puberty, however, they are expected to become men and to shift their identification from the mother to the father. Parsons has hypothesized that this dislocation creates severe strain for boys. In an attempt to assert their masculinity, boys may well turn to delinquent behavior. In contrast, girls continue to identify with their mothers and do not suffer the same “crisis of identity” that boys do.

Further, it is clear that girls in our society do not normally achieve respect by participation in the “rough” activities characteristic of delinquents. For a girl who searches for warmth and recognition, the female role in our society encourages passivity rather than the masculine-oriented behavior of delinquents. Thus, a girl who experiences the same frustrations that produce a delinquent boy might well assert her femininity in promiscuous behavior but would be unlikely to turn to burglary or aggressive crimes.

It should be noted that as the female role in our society has more closely approximated that of the male, the incidence of female delinquency has increased and the gap in rates of crime between boys and girls has narrowed.

Minority groups

Minority groups, particularly in America, contribute disproportionately to the number of adjudicated delinquents. Formerly, in America sons of Irish or Italian immigrants became delinquent significantly more often than “native-born” children. As the immigrant groups have won middle-class status, however, their rate of delinquency has declined. Today, Negroes, Puerto Ricans, and Spanish-Americans most often find their way into the hands of police and courts. Many factors account for this. Police bias, particularly in the southern United States, undoubtedly has an influence. The inferior economic status of these groups, their high rate of familial disorganization, and their experience of cultural conflict also help to explain the differential rate of delinquency. Yet certain minority groups, most notably the Japanese, have not produced a high number of delinquents. While they, too, have suffered discrimination, their unusually tight familial organization has apparently insulated them from the usual delinquent patterns.

Rural and urban comparisons

Rural communities generally have about one-third the rate of delinquency of urban areas. The greater cohesiveness of rural communities, the closer social control, and the greater intimacy between the police and the citizens probably account for this contrast. Rural rates of delinquency have, however, gone up at the same pace as urban rates, and as urban patterns of life infiltrate even the remotest farming areas, the rural–urban difference becomes less striking.

Economic differences

Most importantly, delinquency has concentrated heavily in lower-class, deteriorated, slum areas. In such cities of the United States as Chicago and San Francisco, the incidence of delinquency in the most economically deprived areas is 55 times that in the privileged suburbs. This distinctive relationship cannot be dismissed as simply ephemeral or due to a tendency on the part of police to be more lenient with middle-class children. Since the investigations of the “Chicago school” of criminology, many theories have been proposed to explain this phenomenon (Shaw – Moore 1931). Today, the three most accepted explanations of delinquency’s predominance in economically deprived areas have been presented by Cohen (1955), Cloward and Ohlin (1960), and Miller (1958).

Delinquent subculture. Following the work of Merton and Sutherland, Cohen has argued that the typical working-class youth has not been equipped by his family, school, or social environment for competition. A boy reared in a lower-class environment comes to realize his underprivileged status and the many obstacles that he faces in attempting to achieve self-respect in conventional ways. Because of his frustration, he rejects the usual ethic of society and accepts in its place a “delinquent subculture”: a gang society that stresses negative, destructive, aggressive behavior. Since the typical lower-class boy cannot win status in the usual manner, he joins an “inverted” culture where he can express his spite against the larger society. His crimes are often nonutilitarian in nature—he steals or fights, not for material profit but for the glory of it. The most respected member of the subculture is the one who can best demonstrate his prowess, aggressiveness, and defiance of law-abiding standards.

Patterns of delinquent subcultures. Cloward and Ohlin accept Cohen’s position that a delinquent subculture arises because of the frustrations experienced by members of the lower class, but they take the theory several steps further. They contend that there are several varieties of delinquent societies, each with its unique properties: the “criminalistic” pattern, where gang members accept organized crime as a distinctive way of life; the “conflict” pattern, where the gang turns to aggressive, destructive behavior, regardless of its material rewards; and the “retreatist” pattern, characterized by “beats” who use drugs or alcohol and maintain an attitude of nonchalant indifference to the ordinary world. Perhaps Cloward and Ohlin’s most distinctive contribution is their belief that specific factors in a neighborhood determine which type of “delinquent adaptation” will take place. They emphasize, for example, the role of an adult system of criminal values. If adults in an area participate regularly in organized crime, Cloward and Ohlin assume that a “criminalistic,” nonviolent pattern of delinquency will appear rather than another type.

Working-class norms. To some degree, Miller parts company with other sociologists concerned with the broad social base of delinquency, for he believes that lower-class culture itself generates a delinquent response among boys. He argues that delinquent subcultures do not have paramount importance, but rather that the entire environment of working-class people is one which supports an assertion of masculine “toughness,” “smartness,” and the ability to “con” other people.

General theoretical considerations

The variations between the different positions arouse dispute, but the basic contention appears similar: in an industrial society where all groups do not have equal access to power and privilege, the children of deprived economic groups will absorb an ethic that contradicts the society’s usual values. For these theorists, delinquency represents a normal response to a particular social system.

Obviously, these theories do not explain all aspects of the problem of delinquency. They help to explain the actions of socialized delinquents but are of little aid in clarifying the nature of neurotic or psychopathic crime. Essentially, the theories are confined to explicating why certain areas within modern society produce a generally higher incidence of delinquency than do others. Nevertheless, even in the most deviant urban areas, the majority of boys do not develop a predominantly criminal pattern. To explain why one child chooses a delinquent adaptation and another does not, one must examine other aspects of the person’s life, particularly his early familial environment.

Family experiences

Numerous studies have demonstrated that particular familial experiences are the crucial factors differentiating the delinquent from the nondelinquent child. Only certain types of families, clustered disproportionally in lower-class strata, create a delinquent child. Indeed, research in Minnesota and California estimates that only 5 per cent of American families account for all juvenile delinquency (Buell et al. 1952). The “delinquency-prone” family generally has the following features (Glueck & Glueck 1950; McCord et al. 1959; Healy & Bronner 1936).

Conflict. Delinquent families are rent with parental discord, bitterness, and even hatred. One of the first experiences of the potentially delinquent child is to see his parents engaged in acrimonious quarrels. Not unnaturally, he learns to suspect the motives and good will of people around him. Various studies have shown that a boy raised in a broken home in the United States has about twice the chance of becoming delinquent as a boy raised in a cohesive home. If the parents remain together but engage in constant conflict, the boy’s chance of becoming delinquent is even further increased (McCord et al. 1959).

Paternal rejection. Fathers of delinquents tend to reject their sons or at best treat them with distant disdain. In one typical study of delinquents, 87 per cent came from families where the father was overtly cruel to the son, absent from the home, or severely neglectful—while only a small minority of noncriminal boys experienced paternal rejection (McCord et al. 1959).

Paternal delinquency. Fathers of delinquents are much more likely to have records of crime, alcoholism, or mental disorders (Glueck & Glueck 1950). Thus, to the degree that the child tends to copy his father’s actions, the boy’s chances of delinquency are increased.

Maternal behavior. Mothers of delinquents generally reject and neglect their sons. One study showed that seven times as many delinquents as nondelinquents had been reared by mothers who either felt indifferent toward their children or actively rejected them (Glueck – Glueck 1950). Another study demonstrated that a boy’s chance of serving a sentence in a penal institution was increased by four times if his mother had neglected him in childhood (McCord et al. 1959). In addition, mothers of delinquents have a much higher rate of crime and other forms of social deviance.

Parental supervision. The parents of delinquents either fail to give their sons any supervision at all or tend to discipline them in a severe, often erratic fashion (Glueck & Glueck 1950). Contrary to the usual opinion, children raised under a regime of strict but inconsistent discipline have the highest incidence of delinquency.

General home environment

In general, delinquents come from homes that offer them a portrait of human relationships full of conflict and strife. They learn to view the world with suspicion and to conceive of other human beings as threatening, punitive, and aggressive. If the family resides in an area characterized by a delinquent sub-culture, the child not unnaturally turns to the gang as a cure for his frustrations. Although this general background characterizes most delinquents, the specific types emerge from somewhat different environments. The neurotic delinquent, for example, has more often been exposed to a highly religious background, where his sense of personal worthlessness has been reinforced by strict parental discipline. In contrast with the other varieties, the psychopathic child has suffered from almost total, continuous parental rejection and neglect.


Whether a child chooses delinquency as an adolescent mode of life depends upon a complex interaction of many factors in his background. It is improbable that social science will ever totally unweave the skein of influences that operate to produce delinquency. Nonetheless, studies have produced some generalizations concerning the interrelation of variables leading to delinquency (McCord et al. 1959):

(1) A cohesive, loving home tends to compen-sate for the influence of a delinquent subculture. The majority of children raised in a transitional slum area (but who live in a normal family) do not become delinquents.

(2) The effects of a father’s absence, neglect, or cruelty on his son seem to depend largely upon the mother’s attitude. If the mother is loving, the child is not likely to become delinquent.

(3) The nature of the parents’ discipline does not affect criminality, but the consistency of its imposition does.

By considering the interaction of these factors (and others) in the person’s background, it now appears probable that social science will be able to predict delinquency with a high degree of accuracy. Recent studies by the Gluecks (1959) have indicated that predictions made in early childhood and based on the nature of the child’s family have an extraordinary degree of accuracy in later years. Because the psychological roots of delinquency are so deeply enmeshed in modern society and the family, it would be Utopian to hope that delinquency can ever be totally eradicated. Nonetheless, our increasing knowledge of the varieties of delinquency and their sources offers hope that new techniques of prevention and rehabilitation may substantially reduce the toll of youthful crime.

William McCord

[Directly related are the entriesCrimeandPsychopathic Personality. Other relevant material may be found inAdolescenceandFamily.]


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Caplan, Nathan S. 1965 Intellectual Functioning. Pages 100–138 in Herbert C. Quay (editor), Juvenile Delinquency: Research and Theory. Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand.

Cloward, Richard A.; and OHLIN, LLOYD E. 1960 Delinquency and Opportunity: A Theory of Delinquent Gangs. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Cohen, AlbertK. 1955 Delinquent Boys: The Culture of the Gang. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Dinitz, Simon; Reckless, Walter C.; and Kay, Barbara 1958 A Self Gradient Among Potential Delinquents. Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 49:230–233.

Glueck, Sheldon (editor) 1959 The Problem of Delinquency. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Glueck, Sheldon; and Glueck, Eleanor 1950 Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency. Harvard Law School Studies in Criminology. New York: Commonwealth Fund; Oxford Univ. Press.

Glueck, Sheldon; and Glueck, Eleanor 1959 Predicting Delinquency and Crime. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Goddard, Henry H. 1921 Juvenile Delinquency. New York: Dodd.

Goring, Charles B. 1913 The English Convict: A Statistical Study. London: H.M. Stationery Office.

Hathaway, Starke R.; and Monachesi, Elio D. (editors) 1953 Analyzing and Predicting Juvenile Delinquency With the MMPI. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

Healy, William; and Bronner, Augusta F. 1936 New Light on Delinquency and Its Treatment. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Hewitt, Lester E.; and Jenkins, Richard L. 1947 Fundamental Patterns of Maladjustment: The Dynamics of Their Origin. Springfield, III.: Thomas.

Lindner, Robert M. 1942/1943 Experimental Studies in Constitutional Psychopathic Inferiority. Journal of Criminal Psychopathology 4:252–276; 484–503.

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Miller, Walter B. 1958 Lower Class Culture as a Generating Milieu of Gang Delinquency. Journal of Social Issues 14, no. 3:5–19.

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When the second United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders met in London in 1960, delegates from most countries reported upsurges in adolescent delinquency, not only quantitatively greater than before but more violent and more likely to be group-based rather than individual in character (Middendorff 1960).

In more than a dozen countries, new words have been coined to describe adolescents, nondelinquent as well as delinquent, who wear distinctive clothing and hair styles, listen to special types of music, frequent amusement areas and other gathering places, and generally annoy adults: bar gangs (Argentina), blousons noirs (France), bodgies (Australia), chimpira (Japan), Halbstarke (West Germany), hooligans (Poland), nozem (Netherlands), raggare (Sweden), stilyagi (Soviet Union), tapkaroschi (Yugoslavia), tau-pau (Formosa), teddy boys (Great Britain), vitelloni (Italy). In short, adolescence has come to be regarded, by experts as well as by the general public, as a period of potential antisocial behavior. This is a recent image of adolescence; the turbulence traditionally associated with adolescence was an inner state resulting from sexual maturation and the search for an adult identity (Erikson 1962). In the context of this new perspective on adolescence, delinquent gangs tend to be interpreted as extreme manifestations of teen-age culture (Mays 1961), rather than as juvenile divisions of adult criminal gangs.

Comparability of findings

The term “delinquent gang” means different things to different people. An important reason for the confusion is that research reports on gangs in different cities and countries are not usually prepared with a view to rigorous comparisons. Since each investigator emphasizes those aspects of delinquent gangs in which he is most interested, readers of reports from different places cannot tell whether disparate phenomena are being included within the label “gang delinquency,” or whether verbal habits differ.

For example, the widespread assumption of European criminologists that the delinquent gangs of American cities are larger, better organized, more violent, and more vicious than their European counterparts has not been tested by systematic comparisons (for one expression of this assumption, see Centre de Formation 1963, p. ix).

Gang characteristicssome unanswered questions. How large must a group be to constitute a gang? Should cliques of four or five boys be called gangs, or should the gang concept assume a membership of fifty or more? Size is, of course, related to internal differentiation. Must a gang have a recognized leader or leadership group, or can the leadership function shift from time to time and from activity to activity? How tightly inte-grated must members be with the group for the gang concept to be appropriate? One criminologist has suggested that delinquent gangs typically have moblike as well as grouplike characteristics (Yablonsky 1959). Perhaps the term “gang” suggests a higher degree of integration than is actually found. How delinquent must a gang be in order to be properly described as a “delinquent” gang? Some criminologists argue that a delinquent gang must require delinquent behavior of members, not merely permit or encourage it (Cloward & Ohlin 1960, p. 9). Other criminologists point out that actual gangs, even highly delinquent gangs in cities like Chicago, contain members who are fairly conventional in values and behavior (Matza 1964; Short & Strodtbeck 1965). This issue is related to that of specialization among delinquent gangs. Do fighting gangs differ strikingly from stealing gangs or drug-using gangs? Research suggests that most delinquent gangs engage in a wide variety of lawviolative behavior rather than a few specialties (Cohen & Short 1958; Short et al. 1963).

Must a delinquent gang have some minimum continuity through time? The criminological literature contains accounts of gangs lasting a dozen or more years. Such continuity is usually the result of the simultaneous inclusion within the gang of a considerable age range. When 18-year-olds start dropping out, 11-year-olds are being recruited. However, all members of some gangs are about the same age. Not only does this give the gang a shorter life expectancy; it also means that gangs differ, one from the other, depending, for instance, on whether the members are mainly 14-year-olds or mainly 17-year-olds.

Without a precise description of what a delinquent gang is, criminologists can emphasize without fear of refutation one or another of a considerable array of causal factors: family disorganization, blighted neighborhoods, traditions of delinquency, early school leaving, employment problems, psychopathology. Each of these factors is capable of explaining the emergence of some of the phenomena included under the rubric “delinquent gangs.”

Social upheaval and gang delinquency. The problem of explanation has been further confounded by factors associated with delinquent gangs, which may not be necessary conditions for gang formation. World War ii is an example of such a factor. The conspicuousness of the problem of adolescent gangs following the war prompted some observers to infer a direct connection. It is possible, of course, that the violence of the war and the personal insecurity it engendered contributed directly to attitudes on the part of youth, which found expression in gang delinquency. More likely, the effect on delinquency was indirect— through disruption of family life and the resulting interferences with the socialization of children; through speeding up processes of urbanization and industrialization, thereby tearing people loose from their social moorings; and through inordinate material desires stimulated by increasing affluence.

Ethnic minorities and gang delinquency. Another confounding factor is ethnic status. Ethnic minorities serve as a catalyst for the development of gang delinquency and especially street fighting. Puerto Rican gangs in New York City, Negro gangs in Chicago, Mexican-American gangs in Los Angeles—like Irish gangs in Liverpool, Arab gangs in Paris, and Korean gangs in Tokyo—are community problems. Because they are marginally integrated in the host society, low-status minorities are in a weaker position than the majority to instill conventional motivations in preadolescents and to control adolescents informally. Thus ethnic cleavages reinforce and intensify the social forces making for gang delinquency.

But gangs form in urban industrial societies without war dislocations or ethnic minorities. The Swedish experience is instructive. Sweden was not a belligerent during World War ii; the country has no appreciable minority population; welfare services are highly developed; and slums have been eliminated. Nevertheless, Swedish raggare gangs have been troublesome to the police, especially in Stockholm, Malmö, and Gothenburg. At one time raggare automobiles interfered with traffic in Stockholm to the extent that city officials invited raggare leaders to the Town Hall to discuss the problem.

If neither social upheaval nor ethnic discrimination is a primary factor in the development of delinquent gangs, what is responsible? Research is presently inconclusive, but the probability is that the social consequences of urbanism and industrialization can explain the conjunction of delinquency and affluence.

Gang formation and weak adult control

With the development of modern societies, control of adults over adolescents decreases. This weakness of adult control is most obvious under pathological circumstances such as slum neighborhoods or broken homes (McKay 1949; Toby 1957). Its ultimate source, however, is not pathology but the increasing social fluidity resulting from the allocation of education, recreation, work, and family life to separate institutional contexts. These changes in social organization affect everyone in contemporary societies, but their impact is especially great on adolescents because adolescence is a period of transition. Youngsters must disengage themselves from the family into which they were born and reared and establish themselves in a new family unit (Parsons 1942). They must eventually withdraw from the system of formal education and assume an occupational role.

While preparing to make these transitions and learning preparatory skills, many adolescents are socially adrift, except for such solidary relationships as they form with youngsters in their own situation (Cohen 1955). Delinquent gangs therefore represent an autonomous and antisocial development of adolescent solidarity, and they are, of course, less pleasing to adults than scouting or church-affiliated youth groups. Gang formation is always a possibility in contemporary societies because adolescents are not typically under effective adult supervision—although some adolescents are better controlled by adults than others. The automobile symbolizes the looseness of the ties between adults and adolescents because it is an instrument whereby adult supervision can be evaded.

Individualism. Decreasing control of adults over adolescents is reinforced by individualism. In contemporary societies, the unit of social participation is usually the individual rather than the family group or the community. The child is an individual in school and in the neighborhood play group. Later, he will participate in the political and economic systems as an individual. Besides this implicit principle of individualism embodied in the social organization of contemporary societies, there exists an explicit ideology of individual fulfillment. For example, the Declaration of Independence refers to the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness/’ And contemporary motion pictures, television programs, and mass circulation magazines suggest that thrilling entertainment, new clothes, cigarettes, automobiles, and liquor are necessary for happiness; such ideas are found even in societies where traditions emphasize collective goals (such as Japan). Some youngsters join delinquent gangs in order to satisfy these hedonistic desires.

Relative deprivation—a hypothesis

Although diminished adult control over adolescents and increased individualism may explain the increase in delinquency rates, the principle of relative deprivation is more useful in explaining recruitment into gangs. Some adolescents feel more at a disadvantage than others. It is among these alienated and uncommitted adolescents that delinquent gangs have their greatest appeal (Karacki & Toby 1962). Thus, the principle of relative deprivation helps account for the disproportionate representation of ethnic minorities in delinquent gangs. It also explains why school failures and those who withdraw from school before completing a course of study are more likely to become delinquents than students doing well in school. In contemporary societies, the system of formal education is an important mechanism for allocating youngsters to positions in the occupational system; students who do poorly at school have reason to grow discouraged about their futures. Such discouragement is often antecedent to rebellion (Stinchcombe 1964; Toby & Toby 1961).

However, the principle of relative deprivation does not help to explain the increasing rate of gang delinquency, unless one assumes that the sting of relative deprivation is increasing. A plausible argument can be made that it is increasing. In Sweden, for instance, where social and economic leveling has reduced poverty to a minimum, relatively few adolescents need feel hopeless about their chances for the future, but these few feel more deprived than Untouchable youths in India. Army studies during World War ii have shown that the individual’s expectations for himself—and therefore his feeling of deprivation or satisfaction—depend partly on the proportion of his reference group that is better off than he (Stouffer et al. 1949, pp. 250–258). The same reference group phenomenon may underlie adolescent delinquency in affluent societies [seeReference groups].

If factors related to urbanism and industrialization do indeed account for the proliferation of delinquent gangs in many large cities of the world, the problem will increase in seriousness in the years ahead. Countries like Italy and Spain, where adolescent gangs are still rare, will find that delin quency is part of the price industrial societies pay for their individualistic affluence and for the freedom of adolescents from close supervision by adults.

Jackson toby

[See alsoAdolescence; Collective behavior.]


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Shaw, Clifford R.; and Mckay, Henry D. 1942 Juvenile Delinquency and Urban Areas: A Study of Rates of Delinquents in Relation to Differential Characteristics of Local Communities in American Cities. Univ. of Chicago.

Short, James F., Jr., et al. 1963 Behavior Dimensions of Gang Delinquency. American Sociological Review 28:411–428.

Short, James F., Jr.; and STRODTBECK, FRED L. 1965 Group Process and Gang Delinquency. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Stinchcombe, Arthur L. 1960 Social Sources of Rebellion in a High School. Ph.D. dissertation, Univ. of California.

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Thrasher, Frederic (1927) 1963 The Gang: A Study of 1,313 Gangs in Chicago. Abridged and with an introduction by James F. Short. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Toby, Jackson 1957 The Differential Impact of Family Disorganization. American Sociological Review 22: 505–512.

Toby, Jackson; and Toby, Marcia L. 1961 Low School

Status as a Predisposing Factor in Subcultural Delinquency. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers State Univ. ( mimeographed ).

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Juvenile Delinquency

views updated May 29 2018

Juvenile Delinquency

Society places a heavy burden on families by assigning responsibility for childrearing to parents. Families must transmit values so as to lead children to accept rules that they are likely to perceive as arbitrary. It should be no surprise, therefore, to find that family life bears a strong relation to juvenile delinquency.

Family life can be viewed from three general perspectives. The first is structure: Who lives within a household? The second is interaction: How do the family members treat one another? And the third is social setting: What is the nature of the community in which the family can be found? Each of these perspectives contributes information relevant to understanding the impact of family life on juvenile delinquency.

Juvenile delinquency is defined differently in different cultures, and responses to juvenile delinquents differ also. For example, in Germany, assault is considered a violent crime only if a weapon is used during the commission of the crime, whereas in England and Wales, the degree of injury to the victim determines whether or not an assault is considered a violent crime. Crime is also measured differently in different countries. For example, the United States and Great Britain commonly rely on numbers of arrests to measure crime. In Germany, Austria, and Italy, crime is measured by the number of cases solved by police, whether or not the offender has been apprehended. Although rates for property crimes are higher in Canada, England and Wales, and the Netherlands than in the United States, in comparison with other Western countries, the United States has a higher rate for violent crimes committed by juveniles. The Federal Bureau of Investigation reported an arrest rate for violent crimes (aggravated assault, robbery, and rape) among thirteen- to seventeen-year-olds in the United States of nearly 800 per 100,000 in 1994. In the same year, in England and Wales, approximately 600 per 100,000 fourteen- to sixteen-year-olds were convicted or cautioned by the police for violent crimes. In Germany, 650 per 100,000 fourteen- to seventeen-year-olds, and in the Netherlands, 450 per 100,000 twelve- to seventeen-year-olds were suspects for violent crimes in 1994 (Pfeiffer 1998).

Comparing how countries deal with juvenile offenders presents a challenge because countries differ in the ages during which young people are considered legal juveniles, in the types of institution used to sanction juvenile offenders, and in the sanctions available for them. In Switzerland, for example, a child as young as seven can have criminal responsibility as determined through special juvenile courts. In Belgium, a child under the age of sixteen would not be held criminally responsible for any action and under the age of eighteen could not be incarcerated. In Japan, criminal responsibility can begin at age fourteen, but full criminal responsibility is not assumed until the age of twenty. In New Zealand, since 1989, Family Group Conferences have been used to replace or supplement youth courts for serious criminal cases. In the Netherlands, an offender can be charged as a juvenile between the ages of twelve and eighteen and can be given a lifetime sentence. Sweden and Denmark have no juvenile courts, and juveniles under the age of fifteen in Denmark may not be punished, although they may be referred to a social welfare agency. In the United States, states differ regarding the ages for partial and full criminal responsibility. Most states stipulate no minimum age. Some states grant full criminal responsibility at age fifteen, almost a dozen consider an offender an adult at age sixteen, and the remaining states give full criminal responsibility to an offender after the age of seventeen. Although many jurisdictions in the United States permit capital punishment for juveniles, few other countries allow the execution of minors.

Most research focused on identifying how socialization practices affect the behavior of children has been carried out in the United States. There are, however, some relevant studies about the impact of socialization practices in Great Britain, Scandinavia, Japan, Colombia, and the Netherlands.

Family Structure

When anthropologists discuss family structures, they consider normative patterns. That is, they consider ideal households—or at least widely respected households—in terms of membership. Societies that idealize households with one adult man and woman plus their offspring, nuclear family societies, can be contrasted with those in which one man lives with several women and their children (called polygynous) or several men live with one woman and their children (called polyandrous).

Nuclear families and single-parent households. Increasingly, among contemporary industrial societies, a nuclear family structure has been idealized. Conversely, deviations from this structure have been blamed for a variety of social problems, including delinquency. Although both the popular press and participants in the legal system blame broken homes for failures to socialize children as willing participants in an ordered social system, this conclusion goes well beyond the facts.

Claims that single-parent households produce delinquents fit well with several theories. Some assume that children learn how to become adults by association with parents of their own sex. Boys reared without a resident father, according to this assumption, would be deprived of the association necessary for appropriate maturation. As a result, children are said to overreact by asserting masculinity through delinquent behavior. This opinion has been buttressed by reports suggesting that typical delinquents lack the guidance of a father.

The conviction that lack of paternal guidance causes delinquency dominated early research in the field. High rates of broken homes among incarcerated youths were taken as evidence supporting this assumption. In the 1920s, for example, boys in New York State reformatories were shown to be twice as likely to come from broken homes as boys in New York City public schools. Studies in London, Chicago, rural California, and Boston followed. These, too, showed that broken homes were more common among incarcerated delinquents than among unselected populations. In 1965, convinced that broken homes cause crime, Daniel Moynihan suggested that crime could be reduced by altering family structure among African Americans. Despite the publicity given to the Moynihan Report, however, research has not shown a causal connection.

If poverty causes crime and the incidence of broken homes is greater among the poor, then broken homes might be incorrectly blamed for causing crime. In addition, official records for delinquency may inflate a connection because they reflect decisions by authorities regarding how to treat delinquents. When deciding what to do with a delinquent, representatives of the criminal justice system who believe that broken homes cause crime are more likely to place those from single-parent families in institutions.

Simple comparisons of the proportions of delinquents from single-parent homes with the proportions of nondelinquents from such homes confound many factors associated with family structures in the comparisons. Both social class and ethnicity are among the confounding factors.

Untangling the complexities. Several studies that went beyond comparing the incidence of broken homes among criminals with the incidence in the general population failed to show a link between broken homes and delinquency. For example, among blacks in St. Louis, boys from broken homes were not more likely to become delinquent than those from two-parent homes (Robins and Hill 1966). Careful analyses of juvenile court cases in the United States during 1969 showed that economic conditions rather than family composition influenced children's delinquency (Chilton and Markle 1972). In studies of London schoolboys and of American school children of both sexes, within social class, delinquency was not more prevalent among children from single-parent homes.

Children in single-parent families are likely to have been exposed to such crime-promoting influences as parental conflict and alcoholism. To detect effects on sons' criminality, one study divided both broken and united families according to whether or not the father was an alcoholic or a criminal (McCord 1982). The study showed that alcoholic or criminal fathers were more likely to have sons convicted of serious crimes, whether or not the father was present. There was no association between criminal behavior and single-parent families, regardless of whether the sons had alcoholic or criminal fathers.

Single parents often find it hard to get assistance. If they must work to support themselves and their families, they are likely to have difficulty providing supervision for their children. Poor supervision, like alcoholism and criminality, seems to generate delinquency.

Careful study of the impact of differences in household composition shows that in homes that lack fathers, grandmothers and other adult relatives are protective against delinquency. This evidence further undermines theories that rely on same-sex adults as explanation for successful socialization in families.

Knowledgeable observers have concluded that the evidence fails to support a conclusion that single-parent families cause crime. Asking whether broken homes are good or bad is misleading; the answer must depend in part on the available alternatives. Family conflict is particularly likely to promote criminal behavior, and the choice to divorce must typically be made by parents who do not get along. Convincingly, David Farrington found that among boys who had not been previously aggressive, marital disharmony of parents when the boys were fourteen predicted subsequent aggressive behavior. Furthermore, effects of living with a single parent vary in relation to the emotional and economic climate in the home. Indeed, in their longitudinal study of family disruption among London boys, Heather Juby and David Farrington (2001) found that those who stayed with their mothers following disruption had delinquency rates that were almost identical to those reared in intact families with low conflict. And in their study of inner-city minority youths living in Chicago, Deborah Gorman-Smith, Patrick Tolan, and David Henry (1999) showed that single-parent status had little impact on delinquency.

Family interaction. Whatever characteristics individuals may have inherited, resulting personalities and behavior are influenced by the social environments in which they are raised. Genetic transmission does not occur without environmental influences. Perhaps the best grounds for believing that family interaction influences conduct comes from those programs that alter parental management techniques and thereby benefit siblings. Consistent and reasonable guidance forms the foundation for such programs.

Social control theory postulates that bonds between parents and children provide a basis for children to give up their immediate pleasures in exchange for receiving distal rewards attached to socialized behavior. Consistent discipline and supervision add social control to the internalized bonds on the route toward forming well-socialized adolescents. The theory gains support from a series of studies showing absence of parental affection to be linked with delinquency. Furthermore, reductions in delinquency between the ages of fifteen and seventeen years appear to be related to friendly interaction between teenagers and their parents, a reduction that seems to promote school attachment and stronger family ties (Liska and Reed 1985).

Warm family relationships appear to reduce the risk of delinquency in a variety of cultures other than those found in the United States. For example, Danish adolescents having warm family interactions were less likely to shoplift or commit vandalism than their peers (Arnett; Jeffrey; and Balle-Jensen 1993). In the Netherlands, adolescents between the ages of fourteen and twenty-one who had positive relations with their mothers were considerably less likely to have been engaged in delinquent behavior than those who had negative relationships (Terlouw and Junger-Tas 1992). Similarly, the likelihood that Colombian adolescents would engage in delinquency was reduced by close bonds with parents (Brook; Brook; De La Rosa; Whiteman; and Montoya 1999). In Japan (Harada 1995) and in Sweden (Martens 1992), close emotional ties within the family also appeared to reduce the likelihood that children would become delinquents.

Parental rejection may affect the ways in which children regard both themselves and others. Parents who fail to provide consistent guidance deprive their children of opportunities to gain approval by choosing to behave in accordance with parental rules. If parents treat their offspring with disdain, the offspring are likely to regard themselves as unworthy of care and may come to believe that the way they are treated is how they should treat others.

Symbolic interaction theories suggest that roles assigned within families can have an important effect on how children define others with whom they are likely to have contacts. A variety of types of evidence suggests that delinquents have little self-esteem. Other studies suggest that delinquents lack empathic responses to those around them.

Whether family rejection or neglect affects tendencies toward delinquency through failures in attachment or through role concepts may appear to be merely an interesting academic debate. Yet designs for intervention strategies have depended on these theories in order to decide what approaches to take.

Prevention programs that successfully develop bonds between counselors and youths have failed to prevent delinquency, as have some carefully designed programs aimed toward building self-esteem. The Cambridge-Somerville Youth Study successfully established close bonds between young boys and counselors over a period of several years. Nevertheless, boys who formed such bonds were not less likely to become delinquents than matched boys who were not assigned to program counselors.

One of many programs aimed at improving self-esteem identified aggressive boys in sixth grade and provided a randomly selected group of the vulnerable children with special classes in remedial reading and lessons that provided models for behavior the next school year. Although the boys in these special classes reported that the program had been helpful, neither school nor police records supported a judgment that the program had reduced delinquency (Reckless and Dinitz 1972). Similarly discouraging results come from attempts to build self-confidence among adjudicated delinquents between the ages of fifteen and seventeen (Empey and Erickson 1972) and students in public schools (Gottfredson 1987).

Programs that help parents become adequate guides for their children seem to be more effective when begun before kindergarten (Weikart and Schweinhart 1992), and changes in self-esteem appear more likely to reduce aggressive behavior when begun in primary grades (Tremblay et al. 1992). Once personalities have become fairly stable, the evidence suggests, intervention programs may be ineffective if they rely either on attempts to establish internal bonds or to increase self-esteem.

In sum, parental affection and reasonable parental control have been shown to promote socialized behavior. Yet when children fail to receive these early in their lives, substitutions have typically been ineffective. Of course temperamental, physical, and intellectual differences sometimes influence parenting. Therefore, children's characteristics may affect the relationship between early parenting and later child problems. Parents who are themselves aggressive and antisocial are the most likely to use harsh punishments and to have children who are at heightened risk for aggressive, antisocial behavior.

When children misbehave, parents (or their substitutes) are the first line of control. How they discipline can influence not only immediate behavior, but also their future influence on the child's values. Several longitudinal studies investigating effects of punishment on aggressive behavior have shown that punishments are more likely to result in defiance than compliance.

One study identified toddlers one month after they had started walking unassisted and studied them again a month later. The sample, drawn from Lamaze classes, was middle class, with mothers at home. Among them, "Infants of physically punishing mothers showed the lowest levels of compliance and were most likely to manipulate breakable objects during the observations" (Power and Chapieski 1986, p. 273). Six months later, those who had been physically punished showed slower development as measured by the Bayley mental test scores.

In an investigation of two-year-olds, mothers described their techniques for discipline and various features about family life. Their infants were asked to respond to directions in the laboratory. The same mother-child pairs were studied one month later in their homes during meal preparation and mealtime. After controlling other types of maternal behavior, the observers' ratings indicated that negative control was related to defiance in both settings (Crockenberg and Litman 1990).

Similarly, spanking seems counterproductive for children preparing to enter school. Parents in three cities reported on family disciplinary practices over the prior year as they registered their children for kindergarten. The children were subsequently observed in their classrooms. Children spanked by their mothers or fathers displayed more angry, reactive aggression in the kindergarten classrooms than did those who did not receive physical punishments (Strassberg et al. 1994).

Long-term effects of corporal punishment have been identified in a study based on biweekly observation of 224 parents and their sons over an average period of five-and-one-half years. In addition to measuring the use of corporal punishment in the home, the researchers rated each parent in terms of warmth expressed toward the child. At the time of these ratings, the sons were between the ages of ten and sixteen. Thirty years later, the criminal records of the subjects were traced. Even after statistically controlling for paternal warmth, the father's use of corporal punishment predicted an increased likelihood that the son would subsequently be convicted for a serious crime. After statistically controlling for maternal warmth, the mother's use of corporal punishment predicted an increased likelihood that the son would subsequently be convicted for a serious crime of violence (McCord 1997a).

Taking into account the wide variety of studies on the use of physical punishments, the American Academy of Pediatrics together with the Albert Einstein College of Medicine/Montefiore Medical Center Division of Adolescent Medicine held a conference in 1996 to decide on policy. After two days of debates and consideration of a variety of studies, the conference attendees who had been selected to incorporate widely disparate points of view endorsed the following: "Currently available data indicate that corporal punishment, as previously defined, when compared with other methods of punishment, of older children and adolescents is not effective and is associated with increased risk for dysfunction and aggression later in life."


Where a family lives affects the nature of opportunities that will be available to its members. In some communities, public transportation permits easy travel for those who do not own automobiles. Opportunities for employment and entertainment extend beyond the local boundaries. In other communities, corner gatherings open possibilities for illegal activities. Lack of socially acceptable opportunities leads to frustration and a search for alternative means to success. Community-based statistics show high correlations among joblessness, crime, household disruption, housing density, infant deaths, and poverty.

Community variations may explain why some types of family life have different effects in terms of delinquency in different communities. In general, consistent friendly parental guidance seems to protect children from delinquency across neighborhoods, with the exception of the most disrupted and deprived (Gorman-Smith, Tolan, and Henry 1999). Poor socialization practices, however, seem to be more potent in disrupted neighborhoods.

Neighborhoods influence children's behavior by providing the values that lead them to perceive how to act. The theory of differential association suggests that people acquire their behavioral orientations by learning to define experiences through the eyes of their associates. This theory and the related Construct Theory of Motivation (McCord 1997b) place a premium on the idea that peer groups can shape the behavior of adolescents.

Communities in which criminal activities are common tend to establish criminal behavior as acceptable. Tolerance for gang activities varies by community. In neighborhoods in which gangs are respected, gang membership may generate loyalties that increase the likelihood of violence. Friendships among delinquents seem to involve closer ties as well as greater mutual influence than do friendships among nondelinquents. Through ties of friendship, communities have multiplying effects.


This brief review of research indicates that a popular opinion about family impact is wrong: parental absence is not importantly related to juvenile delinquency. Family interactions have greater influence on delinquency. Children reared by competent, affectionate parents who avoid using physical forms of punishment are unlikely to commit serious crimes either as juveniles or as adults. On the other hand, children reared by parents who neglect or reject them are likely to be greatly influenced by their community environments, which may offer opportunities and encouragement for criminal behavior.

See also:Child Abuse: Physical Abuse and Neglect; Childhood, Stages of: Adolescence; Children of Alcoholics; Conduct Disorders; Conflict: Family Relationships; Discipline; Divorce: Effects on Children; Gangs; Interparental Conflict— Effects on Children; Neighborhood; Oppositionality; Poverty; Runaway Youths; Self-Esteem; Single-Parent Families; Spanking; Substance Abuse; Temperament


Arnett, J., and Balle-Jensen, L. (1993). "Cultural Bases of Risk Behavior: Danish Adolescents." Child Development 64(6):1842–1855.

Brook, J. S.; Brook, D. W.; De la Rosa, M.; Whiteman, M.; and Montoya, I. D. (1999). "The Role of Parents in Protecting Colombian Adolescents from Delinquency and Marijuana Use." Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine 153:457–464.

Chilton, R. J., and Markle, G. E. (1972). "Family Disruption, Delinquent Conduct and the Effect of Subclassification." American Sociological Review 37:93–99.

Crockenberg, S., and Litman, C. (1990). "Autonomy as Competence in Two-Year-Olds: Maternal Correlates of Child Defiance, Compliance, and Self-Assertion." Developmental Psychology 26:961–971.

Empey, L .T., and Erickson, M. L. (1972). The Provo Experiment: Evaluating Community Control of Delinquency. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Gorman-Smith, D.; Tolan, P. H.; and Henry, D. (1999). "The Relation of Community and Family to Risk among Urban-Poor Adolescents." In Where and When: Historical and Geographical Aspects of Psychopathology, ed. P. Cohen, C. Slomkowski, and L. N. Robins. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Gottfredson, G. D. (1987). "Peer Group Interventions To Reduce the Risk of Delinquent Behavior: A Selective Review and A New Evaluation." Criminology 25(3):671–714.

Harada, Y. (1995). "Adjustment to School, Life Course Transitions, and Changes in Delinquent Behavior in Japan." In Current Perspectives on Aging and the Life Cycle, Vol. 4: Delinquency and Disrepute in the Life Course, ed. Z. S. Blau and J. Hagan. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Juby, H., and Farrington, D. P. (2001). "Disentangling the Link Between Disrupted Families and Delinquency." British Journal of Criminology 41:22–40.

Liska, A. E., and Reed, M. D. (1985). "Ties to Conventional Institutions and Delinquency: Estimating Reciprocal Effects." American Sociological Review 50 (August):547–560.

Martens, P. L. (1992). Familj, Uppvaxt Och Brott (Family, environment and delinquency). Stockholm, Sweden: Brottsforebyggande radet.
McCord, J. (1982). "A Longitudinal View of the Relationship Between Paternal Absence and Crime." In Abnormal Offenders, Delinquency, and the Criminal Justice System, ed. J. Gunn and D. P. Farrington. Chichester, UK: John Wiley and Sons.

McCord, J. (1997a). "On Discipline." Psychological Inquiry 8(3):215–217.

McCord, J. (1997b). "He Did It Because He Wanted To . . . ." In Motivation and Delinquency, ed. W. Osgood. Vol. 44. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Pfeiffer, C. (1998). "Juvenile Crime and Violence in Europe." In Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, ed. M. Tonry. Vol. 23. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Power, T. G., and Chapieski, M. L. (1986). "Childrearing and Impulse Control in Toddlers: A Naturalistic Investigation." Developmental Psychology 22(2):271–275.

Reckless, W. C., and Dinitz, S. (1967). "Pioneering with Self-Concept as a Vulnerability Factor in Delinquency." Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 58:515–523.

Robins, L. N., and Hill, S. Y. (1966). "Assessing the Contribution of Family Structure, Class, and Peer Groups to Juvenile Delinquency." Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 57:325–334.

Strassberg, Z.; Dodge, K. A.; Pettit, G.; and Bates, J.E. (1994). Spanking in the Home and Children's Subsequent Aggression toward Kindergarten Peers. Development and Psychopathology 6(3):445–461.

Terlouw, G., and Junger-Tas, J. (1992). "The International Juvenile Self-Report Delinquency Study: Design and First Results of the Dutch Survey." Paper presented at the 44th annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology, New Orleans, LA.

Tremblay, R. E.; Vitaro, F.; Bertrand, L.; LeBlanc, M.; Beauchesne, H.; Boileau, H.; and David, L. (1992). "Parent and Child Training to Prevent Early Onset of Delinquency: The Montreal Longitudinal-Experimental Study." In Preventing Antisocial Behavior: Interventions from Birth through Adolescence, ed. J. McCord and R. E. Tremblay. New York: Guilford Press.

Weikart, D. P., and Schweinhart, L. J. (1992). "High/Scope Preschool Program Outcomes." In Preventing Antisocial Behavior, ed. J. McCord and R. E. Tremblay. New York: Guilford Press.

other resources

American Society of Criminology. Web site. Available from

International Society for Criminology. Web site. Available from

joan mccord


views updated May 11 2018


Delinquency occurs in every country in the world. In many countries, delinquency first arose as a distinct problem in the late nineteenth century. In Germany, juvenile crime was first distinguished from adult crime in 1871 and in Britain in 1908. The United States' first juvenile court was established in 1899.

Delinquency and Society

As a social problem, delinquency came into being with adolescence itself. As Western societies prolonged childhood dependency and postponed the age of expected independence through the second half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, problems specific to the period of prolonged childhood emerged. In a rural, peasant society, for example, a fifteen-year-old boy missing school was not greeted with official opprobrium; a sixteen-year-old girl who was becoming sexually active might be rushed into marriage, not into court.

No matter the time period, delinquency is often closely tied to poverty and to the degree of difference between the rich and the poor in a society. In addition, delinquency is a

symptom of larger disruptions to tradition. Public concern for, and even panic over, delinquency peaks when major social patterns are changing. The first real attention to delinquency in the United States occurred in the 1880s and 1890s, for example, a time of rapid urbanization, massive immigration, and major shifts in labor patterns and the workplace. More recently, scholars focused on ethnic and racial difference as indicated by youth crime during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s.

Scholars in eastern Europe have understood youth crime as an indicator of the breakdown of traditional authority resulting from the disruptions associated with the fall of the Soviet Union and the instability of succeeding political and economic regimes. In western Europe, two trends have emerged. Some countries, including Great Britain, Germany, and Finland, have witnessed a constantly increasing amount of juvenile crime from 1950 to 2000. Others, including Austria, Switzerland, and the Scandinavian countries, saw a sharp rise in juvenile crime from 1950 to about 1970, with a leveling-off occurring after 1970. On the other hand, all European countries have seen an increase in juvenile violent crime since 1950, with marked upward trends during the 1980s and 1990s. While adult crime rates stayed steady, rising juvenile violent crime rates mirrored rising unemployment and poverty rates. The most recent statistics, for 1995 through 2000, show a slight increase in juvenile violent crime in Germany, a slight decrease in Great Britain, and a significant increase in France, especially in sexual assaults by juveniles.

In South Africa, juvenile crime in the period from 1948 to 1994 was associated with apartheid, resistance to apartheid, and with the divide between blacks and whites in income, housing, and education. Since the new government came to power there in 1994, it has tried to address youth crime by instituting socioeconomic change and by revising the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, reliable information on the results of these efforts is difficult to find.

Definitions of Delinquency

The Oxford English Dictionary defines delinquency as the condition or quality of being a delinquent; delinquent means "failing in duty or obligation; one guilty of an offence against the law." Juvenile delinquency is the term used to denote any offense against the law performed by a youth under a certain age. In many countries, that age is eighteen, but it varies across the globe.

In the United States, police may charge a youth with delinquency when he or she is alleged to have committed a crime. In addition, juveniles may be charged when they have committed a "status offense," a violation of a specific restriction that applies to people under a certain age, such as breaking a curfew.

Delinquency and its definitions have changed over time. Scholars have found that girls and boys are apprehended for different offenses. In addition, what constitutes delinquency has changed over time.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century United States, boys and girls were most often charged with crimes far different from those they are charged with early in the twenty-first century. Delinquent boys were primarily charged with property offenses, such as stealing copper pipes to sell to junkmen. In the same period, girls were mainly charged with status offenses, such as incorrigibility or running awayterms that often masked sexual activity. Boys were rarely charged with such crimes. In the early twenty-first century, both girls and boys have been charged more often with violent crime than they were in 1900, although property theft is still the largest category for boys charged with delinquency. What was once considered an offensefrequenting dance halls, for exampleis often not considered a crime at all today. On the other hand, crimes related to the drug trade and the easy availability of weapons are much more prevalent than at the turn of the last century.

A surge of violent youth crime in the United States took place in the 1980s and was closely tied to a new wave of drugs on the streets. During the 1980s and 1990s, more children under age twelve were committing violent acts than before. Between 1980 and 1995, arrests for violent crime doubled for youths aged twelve or younger. From 1980 to 1995, the number of arrests for forcible rape were up 190 percent for juveniles under twelve and arrests for carrying or possessing weapons were up 206 percent. African-American juveniles were arrested disproportionately compared to their numbers in the population. In 1995, African-American children represented about 15 percent of the U.S. youth population but accounted for nearly 50 percent of all arrests for violent crime. The government responded to the dramatic increase in juvenile crime with a host of punitive measures: reducing the age at which an adolescent can be considered an adult and tried in adult court; creating new military-style "boot camp" programs; sentencing juveniles to longer periods of incarceration and stricter oversight. The number of adolescents incarcerated skyrocketed. After 1994, violent youth crime decreased, but property crime did not decrease proportionately. Female violent crime, moreover, did not decrease at the same rate as that for males. It is unclear whether the decrease in violent juvenile crime was a result of new policies, a decline in crack cocaine use, federal efforts to control the distribution of guns, community and school prevention programs, or some combination of these factors.

Responses to Delinquency

At bottom, the governmental response to delinquency is inherently repressive, relying on the coercive power of the state and the threat of incarceration. During the 1960s and 1970s, both the United States and Great Britain saw a more anti-institutional approach hold sway, with a greater focus on welfare, probation, and supervision, but now both countries have returned to a more punitive method of dealing with delinquent youth.

Researchers have spent decades examining juvenile delinquents and their offenses. Time and again, they come up against the difficult question posed by any study of crime: why did this particular person and not another commit a crime? Was the cause of his of her delinquency physical, medical, psychological, social, or something else entirely? Cross-cultural comparisons of delinquents have pointed to useful facts: that where family power breaks down and when traditions lose their grip, one is most likely to find delinquent behavior. In-depth studies of certain delinquent groups have also pointed to the growth of an alternative family structure in gangs and to a growing tradition of rootlessness and violence. For many youth, there is no tradition but violence and aimlessness. Some investigators have found that delinquency increases during wartime because of this rootlessness; others find that wartime employment means lower rates of delinquency.


It is impossible to discuss delinquency as though it is the same the world over, but important patterns can be distinguished. Delinquency is often seen as a social problem, a symptom of a deeper social malaise. When societies undergo long periods of upheaval, official attention is focused on delinquency and youth behavior. Even though delinquency goes through periods of increase and decrease, it never disappears altogether. Governments and social agencies also go through periods of increased or decreased effort in dealing with delinquency, swinging back and forth between repressive and less restrictive measures.

See also: Children's Rights; Homeless Children and Runaways in the United States; Juvenile Justice; Youth Gangs.


Addams, Jane. 1909. The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets. New York: Macmillan.

Boehnke, Klaus, and Dagmar Bergs-Winkels. 2002. "Juvenile Delinquency under Conditions of Rapid Social Change." Sociological Forum 17, no. 1 (March): 5779.

Butts, Jeffrey A., and Howard N. Snyder. 1997. "The Youngest Delinquents: Offenders Under Age 15." Juvenile Justice Bulletin (September): 12.

Cross, William E., Jr. 2003. "Tracing the Historical Origins of Youth Delinquency and Violence: Myths and Realities about Black Culture." Journal of Social Issues 59, no. 1: 6782.

Estrada, Felipe. 1999. "Juvenile Crime Trends in Post-War Europe." European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research 7: 2342.

Hoffman, Allan M., and Randal W. Summers, eds. 2001. Teen Violence: A Global View. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

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Jenson, Jeffrey M., Cathryn C. Potter, and Matthew O. Howard. 2001. "American Juvenile Justice: Recent Trends and Issues in Youth Offending." Social Policy and Administration 35, no. 1 (March): 4868.

Mennel, Robert M. 1973. Thorns and Thistles: Juvenile Delinquents in the United States, 18251940. Hanover: University of New Hampshire Press.

Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. 2001. Re-search 2000. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.

Rothman, David. 1980. Conscience and Convenience: The Asylum and Its Alternatives in Progressive America. Boston: Little, Brown.

internet resources

Interpol. "International Crime Statistics." Available from <>.

Pfeiffer, Christian. "Trends in Juvenile Violence in European Countries." Available from <>.

Victoria L. Getis


views updated Jun 08 2018


Delinquent behavior, according to legal definitions, includes such acts as robbery, assault, property damage, drug possession, and other similar crimes committed by youth. Delinquency also includes what are known as status offenses, which are acts considered to be rule violations because individuals who commit them are not of legal age. Examples of typical status offenses include drinking alcohol, smoking, and truancy. Although delinquency is technically defined as a single law-breaking act, researchers have found that some youths' delinquent behavior is of sufficient frequency and severity to represent an identifiable pattern of behavior that becomes apparent at an early age. Indeed, as early as the 1950s, important research by experts such as William McCord and Joan McCord began to identify factors that helped explain an early onset pattern of antisocial and delinquent behavior. This research cited harsh parenting as a leading contributor to the development of this pattern.

The Early Onset/Persistent Pattern

Many experts have studied the early onset/persistent (EOP) pattern because such youth are observed to enter a "developmental pathway" to adolescent antisocial and delinquent behavior by showing aggression and other problem behaviors as early as the preschool period and continuing a pattern of antisocial behavior into adulthood. Children progress on this pathway by displaying a progression of behaviors, including: having tantrums in preschool; fighting with peers and defying adults during elementary school; being truant, using drugs, smoking, and shop-lifting in junior high; and committing crimes in adolescence and young adulthood. This group constitutes between 5 percent and 7 percent of delinquent adolescents but tends to be responsible for the majority of recorded delinquent acts. There are two other important distinguishing features of EOP youth: Their delinquent acts tend to be of high severity, and they are likely to be antisocial in all arenas of their lives.

Current knowledge about the origins of delinquency is not complete, but a substantial amount of information has been amassed over the last century. In addition to identifying distinct patterns of delinquent behavior, investigators have made significant discoveries about the factors that may place a child on a pathway toward delinquent behavior. What follows is a discussion of the types of factors that have been reliably associated with delinquency at various developmental periods. These are factors that, when present, increase the risk for involvement in delinquency but should never be considered causal. This is an important point to grasp because, while strong statements can be made about which factors increase the risk for becoming delinquent, the present state of knowledge does not allow experts to make definitive statements about the precise "causes" of delinquency.

Studies frequently find that EOP delinquent youth come from environments of poverty marked by high levels of instability and life stress. Importantly, experts have been careful to point out that these factors do not alone account for the development of delinquency. Rather, it is the effects that poverty and life stress tend to have on parenting that make them powerful risk factors. Parents in these environments tend to have fewer resources and less social support than what is required for optimally raising their children. Consequently, they are more likely to be emotionally unavailable and to use inconsistent, harsh, and sometimes abusive disciplinary strategies. Because of their limited resources, parents in these situations tend to provide inadequate monitoring of their children, thus allowing them ample opportunities for an active life of delinquent behavior. These are all factors that are frequently found in the backgrounds of EOP delinquent youth.

Experts have turned to emotion regulation processes to explain why early parenting factors are associated with EOP delinquent behavior. They have observed that, starting in the first year of life, children depend exclusively on caregivers to help them regulate their emotions and to stay organized in the face of arousing situations. In optimal caregiving contexts, children are free to explore their environments and to experience a wide range of emotions because they are confident that their caregivers will be available in times of distress. When parents experience high levels of life stress, mental health problems such as depression, and low amounts of social support, they have fewer resources to devote to their parenting.

Without adequate parental support, children in such environments are likely to develop maladaptive coping skills for dealing with disorganizing emotions (such as anger and sadness) and are likely to behave aggressively and impulsively instead. This is especially true of maltreated children because their caregivers are frequently the source of their distress and are likely to be emotionally unavailable and unsupportive.

Research shows that once a pattern of aggressive, defiant, and impulsive behavior has been established, it is highly resistant to change. This is true in large part because the environments that help give rise to this pattern are themselves highly stable. Because of countless repetitions over time, maladaptive patterns of emotion regulation become deeply ingrained by the elementary school years to the extent that they become core components of a child's personality structure. Moreover, certain "vicious cycle" processes begin to take over. For example, children who show high levels of aggression and other antisocial behavior are more likely to be rejected by their peers and to receive negative attention from teachers, which in turn leads to more aggression. As these children progress through school, they are frequently suspended and/or expelled, begin to fail academically, and eventually develop adversarial relationships with the school system. By the time they enter high school, these children have had a lifetime of training and preparation for delinquent behavior in adolescence and quickly find peers who reinforce their patterns of behavior. In fact, one of the strongest findings is that delinquent children associate with and commit many of their offenses in the company of delinquent peers. Other vicious cycles can be found in the homes of most EOP youth. Power-assertive discipline strategies are more likely to be used, which in turn reinforce aggressive habits. Moreover, groundbreaking work by Gerald Patterson in 1982 showed that parents of EOP youth tend to use parenting strategies marked by an escalation of conflict, which also reinforces aggressive behaviors.

The Adolescence-Limited Pattern

In 1993, Terrie Moffitt showed that youth follow not one but at least two distinct developmental pathways to adolescent delinquency and antisocial behavior. Contrasting with the EOP group is what Moffitt termed the adolescence-limited (AL) pattern. As the name implies, these youth show no notable signs of problem behavior until adolescence, when they begin to engage in high levels of delinquent and other antisocial behavior similar to the EOP group. AL youth, however, begin to cease their delinquent behavior toward the end of adolescence, and many of these youth cease to engage in such behavior entirely by their mid-twenties. Although the behavior patterns of AL youth are often indistinguishable from those of the EOP group, AL delinquent acts are more likely to be status offenses rather than violent crimes, and the delinquent behavior of AL youth tends to be limited to certain contexts such as the peer social arena.

Adolescence-limited delinquent behavior is an interesting phenomenon because it follows a very different developmental pathway. These youth tend to (1) come from relatively stable backgrounds; (2) show normal levels of academic achievement and social competence; and (3) not have experienced maltreatment. Experts have discovered that these are reasonably well-adjusted youth who are motivated to assert their independence by engaging in what they perceive as "mature" behavior such as alcohol use and smoking. Because AL delinquent behavior is likely to cease by young adulthood, some experts have wondered whether it may be appropriately considered a normal part of adolescent "experimentation." Nevertheless, because of its risky nature, this pattern should not be dismissed as harmless given the consequences it may entail, such as pregnancy, criminal prosecution, and substance addiction.

Future Research into Delinquency

Gaps in scientists' knowledge about the development of delinquency continue to stimulate vigorous research activity. For example, a large research effort has focused on the exploration of other patterns of delinquent behavior given that some studies have identified some children who begin a pattern of antisocial behavior at early ages but stop by adolescence. Because these children are exceptions, however, most of the research on the development of delinquency has focused on more typically observed patterns such as the EOP and AL types. Nevertheless, researchers continue to work on pinpointing what helps to remove children from a delinquent pathway, especially because efforts to curb and prevent delinquency have consistently met with disappointing results. Other researchers in this field have turned their lens to female delinquency. This new emphasis is important because the preponderance of the research has focused on male delinquency because of its staggeringly higher incidence; this has left many questions unanswered regarding how delinquency develops in females. Studies addressing these and other important issues promise new insights into delinquency in the future.



McCord, William, and Joan McCord. Origins of Crime: A New Evaluation of the Cambridge-Somerville Youth Study. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1959.

Moffitt, Terrie E. "Adolescence-Limited and Life-Course-Persistent Antisocial Behavior: A Developmental Taxonomy." Psychological Review 100 (1993):674-701.

Patterson, Gerald R. A Social Learning Approach to Family Intervention: Coercive Family Processes. Eugene, OR: Castalia, 1982.



Juvenile Delinquency

views updated May 23 2018

Juvenile Delinquency


State Reform Schools. By the 1850s, as states increased their role in education and nativist attitudes toward immigrants became widespread, courts and legislatures increased intervention in families who deviated from prescribed domestic ideals. In the expansive early republic through individual decisions, judges had forged a liberal and contractual family law, decreasing patriarchy and extending the individual rights of wives and children. Expanding the doctrine of parens patriae to challenge paternal custody rights, they also used the argument of the childs best interests to enlarge judicial authority. As mothers assumed the central role in child rearing, women won an increasing number of custody cases. Yet new standards of child welfare and parental fitness also could reduce the rights of both parents as destitute or delinquent children who came before police courts were placed in more-acceptable domestic situations or in new institutions founded by the state. The first state reform school for boys was founded in West-borough, Massachusetts, in 1847; when the first compulsory attendance law was passed by that states legislature in 1852, habitual truants could be sentenced to the state reformatory. School reformers, howeverHorace

Mann, Henry Barnard, and Samuel Gridley Howeadmired a new European model of a family reform school, charging that reformatories resembled prisons more than schools. This domestic model was followed in the Massachusetts Industrial School for Girls, founded in 1854. As the Midwest increasingly resembled the Northeast in the 1850s, legislatures in Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana voted to establish similar state reform schools on the family model.

The Childrens Aid Society . Reformers in Eastern cities came to believe that the West was an ideal environment for destitute or delinquent urban children. In the West, separated from the corrupting influences so rampant in Eastern cities, children could obtain physical and moral health as well as economic opportunity. One of these reformers was Charles Loring Brace, who became an urban missionary for the Childrens Aid Society in 1853. Immersing himself in New Yorks most dangerous and notorious neighborhoods, where he founded industrial schools for girls and a Newsboys Lodging-house, Brace came to admire the self-reliant and resourceful urban children. Such children, he wrote, felt keenly the profound forces of American life; the desire of equality, ambition to rise, the sense of self-respect and the passion for education. Convinced that each child ought to labor with a motive, with something of the boundless hope which stimulates so wonderfully the American youth, he was critical of the state reform school, which he felt instilled its own habits and vices and did not prepare children to succeed in life. Concluding that the best of all Asylums for the outcast child is the farmers home Brace determined to place city children with Western farmers, who would treat them like members of the family and would welcome extra labor. By 1857 the Childrens Aid Society placed about six hundred city boys in Western states, transporting them by train to farmers who selected them at railroad stations in Michigan, Iowa, or Illinois. Catholic clergymen criticized the Protestant charity, charging that it kidnapped Catholic children, wrenching them from struggling immigrant families and weaning them from their faith. Other critics objected that the children sent west were exploited for their labor, that the charity failed to follow the fate of the boys, and that the plan benefited neither farmers nor the children. Nevertheless, placing its faith in time-honored patterns of childrens work and the entrepreneurial energy of the children themselves, by 1860 the Childrens Aid Society sent to Western homes as many as 5,074 urban children.


Charles Loring Brace, The Dangerous Classes of New York and Twenty Years Work Among Them (New York: Wynkoop & Hallenbeck, 1872);

The Life Of Charles Loring Brace (London, 1894);

Robert Bremner, ed., Children and Youth in America: A Documentary History, 3 volumes (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970);

Michael Grossberg, Governing the Hearth: Law and the Family in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985);

Joseph M. Hawes, Children in Urban Society: Juvenile Delinquency in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971);

Steven L. Schlossman, Love & the American Delinquent: The Theory and Practice of Progressive Juvenile Justice, 18251920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977).

Juvenile Delinquency

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Juvenile Delinquency

This term refers to lawbreaking by minors, including status offenses such as truancy, homelessness, and being unsupervised by a suitable adult guardian. The term appeared first after the Civil War when criminologists and social reformers called attention to the poverty, disease, crime, and inadequate home life in urban, often immigrant, communities. Jane Addams, Robert Woods, Florence Kelley, and other settlement house leaders in the 1890s lobbied state legislators and private and public charities to eliminate juvenile delinquency by eradicating these social problems. They proposed new school attendance, public health and safety laws to protect children. Activists concerned with assisting troubled youth founded recreational organizations (such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts), team sports, sunday schools, juvenile courts, pediatric medical clinics, and the field of child psychology during the early twentieth century.

Sociologists and criminologists, many from the University of Chicago, argued that delinquents were a byproduct of poverty, since statistics seemed to indicate that the incidence of crime increased with unemployment. Later studies attributed delinquency to a wide range of environmental conditions associated with poverty: overcrowded, slum-like dwellings, a low level sanitation, and inadequate recreation. By the 1920s the Harvard Law School Crime Survey supported this view, particularly according to research conducted by Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck. They used an interdisciplinary approach for a multiple-factor theory of juvenile delinquency. The evidence they gathered pointed to the quality of a child's family life as the most important factor criminal behavior. Recidivism rates were high among juvenile delinquents despite professional intervention. However, after 1950 most sociologists blamed delinquency on individual or family dysfunction rather than low social or economic class.

Adolescent gang wars, although not unheard of in the nineteenth century, became a national concern after World War I and more so after World War II. Many urban streets and parks were unsafe. Despite greater police patrols and an expansion of state reform schools for delinquents, juvenile delinquents continued to avoid school and loiter and make trouble in public spaces. Churches and social workers developed summer camps and other recreation programs to control the problem. They also initiated foster home services. American psychologist G. Stanley Hall, who coined the term adolescence in 1901, advocated the scientific study of juvenile delinquency. The British-American psychiatrist William Healy, the first child psychiatrist in the United States, pioneered diagnosis of emotionally disturbed children in Chicago (1900) and Boston (1917). He and his wife, Augusta Fox Bronner, trained a new generation of social workers, psychologists, and probation officers to treat young offenders.

During the Great Depression, Hollywood recognized juvenile delinquency as an important urban problem that rendered great material for movie plots. Some of the films that grew out of this recognition were as Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), Boys Town (1938), Crime School (1938), and They Made Me A Criminal (1939). Rebel Without a Cause (1955) was centered around alienation felt by middleclass, suburban teenagers. West Side Story (1961), a film adaptation of the landmark Broadway musical by Leonard Bernstein, was a modern revision of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, featuring gangs in New York City in the 1950s in lieu of the two feuding families. Blackboard Jungle (1955), the first film to feature rock 'n' roll music, showed the harrowing experience public school teachers encountered in a New York City high school in the 1950s. The treatment of rebellious middleclass adolescents in modern psychiatric centers was depicted in Born Innocent (1974). In contrast, Boyz N the Hood (1991) portrayed senseless violence and drug abuse in South Central Los Angeles black teenage gangs.

Juvenile delinquency remained a serious social and legal problem into the late twentieth century. Many conservative activists and scholars proposed that is was exacerbated by the 1960s sexual revolution and excessive drug use. Some criminologists reported that most criminal behavior was perpetrated by unemployed young male, and later included female, delinquents. By the close of the twentieth century youthful criminal offenders continued to frustrate the population, particularly law enforcement and educational professionals and the victims of juvenile criminal conduct.

—Peter C. Holloran

Further Reading:

Bartollas, Clemens. Juvenile Delinquency. New York, Wiley, 1985.

Glueck, Sheldon, and Eleanor T. Glueck. One Thousand Juvenile Delinquents. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1934.

Hawes, Joseph. Children in Urban Society. New York, Oxford University Press, 1971.

Holloran, Peter C. Boston's Wayward Children: Social Services for Homeless Children, 1830-1930. Boston, Northeastern University Press, 1984.

Sandhu, Harjit S. Juvenile Delinquency: Causes, Control, and Prevention. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1977.

Juvenile Delinquency

views updated May 18 2018

Juvenile delinquency

Chronic antisocial behavior by persons 18 years of age or younger that is beyond parental control and is often subjected to legal and punitive action.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the arrest rate of American juveniles (persons 18 years of age or younger) committing violent crimes increased from 137 percent in 1965 to 430 percent in 1990. While teenagers are the population most likely to commit crimes, their delinquency is related to the overall incidence of crime in society: teen crime increases as adult crime does. The majority of violent teenage crime is committed by males. While the same delinquency rates are attributed to both whites and nonwhites, nonwhites have a higher arrest rate.

In spite of the emotional turbulence associated with adolescence , most teenagers find legal, nonviolent ways to express feelings of anger and frustration and to establish self-esteem . Nonetheless, some teenagers turn to criminal activity for these purposes and as a reaction to peer pressure . A number of factors have been linked to the rise in teen crime, including family violence . Parents who physically or verbally abuse each other or their children are much more likely to raise children who will commit crimes. In a study conducted in 1989, for example, 80 out of 95 incarcerated juvenile delinquents had witnessed or been victims of severe family violence. A similar incidence of abuse was found in a study of teenage murderers.

The growing poverty rate in the U.S., particularly among children, has also been attributed to juvenile delinquency. In the late 1980s, the National Education Association predicted that 40 percent of secondary school students will live below the poverty line. The anger and frustration of low-income youths excluded from the "good life" depicted in the mass media, coupled with the lack of visible opportunities to carve out productive paths for themselves, lead many to crime, much of it drug-related. A dramatic link has been found between drug use and criminal activity: people who abuse illegal drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, have been found to commit six times as many crimes as non-drug users.

For many poor inner-city youths, juvenile delinquency begins with participation in the drug trade. Children as young as 9 or 10 are paid as much as $100 a day to serve as lookouts while drug deals are taking place. Next, they become runners and may eventually graduate to being dealers. The introduction of crack cocaine, one of the most powerfully addictive drugs in existence, in the mid-1980s, has contributed to drug-related delinquency. The neglected children of crack-addicted parents are especially likely to be pulled into the drug culture themselves.

The wealth gained from the drug trade has further escalated levels of juvenile delinquency by fueling the rise of violent street gangs . Many gangs are highly organized operations with formal hierarchies and strict codes of dress and behavior. With millions of dollars in drug money behind them, they are expanding from major urban areas to smaller communities. Teens, both poor and middle-class, join gangs for status, respect, and a feeling of belonging denied them in other areas of their lives. Some are pressured into joining to avoid harassment from gang members. Once in a gang, teens are much more likely to be involved in violent acts.

The juvenile justice system has been criticized as outdated and ineffective in dealing with the volume and nature of today's teen crime. A teenager must be either 16 or 18 years of age (depending on the state) to be tried as an adult in criminal court, regardless of the crime committed. Child offenders under the age of 13 are considered juvenile delinquents and can only be tried in family court, no matter what type of crime they have committed. Unless the offender has already committed two serious crimes, the maximum punishment is 18 months in a youth facility. Teenagers between the ages of 13 and 16 are classified as "juvenile offenders." They are rarely photographed or fingerprinted, even in cases involving rape or murder, and usually receive lenient sentences. Most are confined for period of less than four months.

Of approximately 2 million juveniles arrested each year, an estimated 50 percent are released immediately. Those whose cases are tried in court are often given suspended sentences or put on probation. Of those who are sentenced to prison, most return to criminal activity upon their release, and many fear that these young offenders come out of prisons even more violent. In addition, the unmanageable caseloads of probation officers in many cities makes it impossible to keep track of juveniles adequately. Thus, those teens who turn to crime face little in the way of a deterrent, a situation that has caused many authorities to place a large share of the blame for teen crime on the failure of the juvenile justice system.

Alternative community-based programs for all but the most violent teens have had some success in reducing juvenile crime. These include group homes which offer counseling and education; wilderness programs such as Outward Bound; crisis counseling programs that provide emergency aid to teenagers and their families; and placement in a foster home, when a stable home environment is lacking.

Further Reading

Binder, Arnold. Juvenile Delinquency: Historical, Cultural, Legal Perspectives. New York: Macmillan, 1988.

Grinney, Ellen Heath. Delinquency and Criminal Behavior. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1992.

Trojanowicz, Robert C. Juvenile Delinquency: Concepts and Control. New York: Prentice Hall, 1983.


views updated May 18 2018

delinquency Literally misdeed, guilt, or neglect of duty, and hence in this sense not strictly defined by law. However, particularly when referred to as juvenile delinquency, the term is often used to embrace a broad range of behaviour, from that found offensive to respectable values (noisy teenage gatherings, truancy) to petty and occasionally more serious crime (such as shop-lifting, breaking and entering, and car theft).

Typically, the delinquent has been seen as an urban male, usually working class, aged between 12 and 20, associated with a variety of anti-social behaviours, membership of a gang, and having a history of trouble with the authorities and of recidivism. A high proportion of serious (indictable) offences are committed by people in this age-group, and so, on the one hand, the ‘problem’ of delinquency is one that always seems clearly demonstrable and inviting obvious explanations. Yet, on the other, the sociological literature and range of explanatory approaches is wide—drawing, for example, on the diverse theories of anomie, the Chicago School, the gang, delinquent drift, deviance amplification, differential association, differential opportunity, moral panics, and subcultures (all of which are treated under separate entries elsewhere in this dictionary). Psychology and psychiatry also offer various approaches: influences here include parental or maternal deprivation, and measures of intelligence and personality (for all of which again see separate entries). It is often held that the problem is new or getting worse, but late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British and American society saw similar waves of delinquency. (A good account of these is given in G. Pearson , Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears, 1983
.) In the past, studies of delinquent youth largely neglected questions of race and gender, an omission which is only slowly being addressed.

Juvenile Delinquency

views updated May 23 2018


Juvenile delinquency refers to the violation of a criminal law by a juvenile. In most states a juvenile is anyone under age eighteen, but in some states a person is considered an adult at age sixteen or seventeen. If a juvenile has committed an act that would be a crime if committed by an adult, then the juvenile has committed juvenile delinquency. Moreover, juvenile delinquency includes acts that are legal for adults. These acts are called status offenses because they are illegal only for people with the status of being a juvenile. Whereas crimes consist of such acts as murder and rape (which are illegal for both juveniles and adults), examples of status offenses are running away from home and truancy (which are illegal only for juveniles). Juvenile courts, as opposed to criminal courts, generally have jurisdiction over the crimes and status offenses committed by juveniles.



Empey, LaMar T., Mark C. Stafford, and Carter H. Hay. American Delinquency: Its Meaning and Construction. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1999.

Jensen, Gary F., and Dean G. Rojek. Delinquency and Youth Crime. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1998.

Mark C.Stafford

juvenile delinquency

views updated Jun 11 2018

juvenile delinquency See DELINQUENCY.

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