Punishments Adolescents Find Justified: An Examination of Attitudes toward Delinquency

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The purpose of this study was to examine adolescents' attitudes toward delinquency, specifically the degree to which they find norm violations acceptable in various circumstances. A total of 1,914 Dutch youths participated: 1,046 reported having committed no crimes in the past year, 578 reported having committed only nonviolent offenses, and 290 reported having committed both violent and nonviolent offenses. It was hypothesized that, in general, delinquents would prescribe less severe punishments for deviant behavior, irrespective of the circumstances. This hypothesis was rejected. It was found, however, that violent delinquents were significantly more tolerant of violent behavior as compared with nondelinquents, with one important exception: when injury was inflicted on someone they knew, they were as little inclined to excuse the perpetrator as were nondelinquents. Violent delinquents discriminated most strongly between friends and strangers as both victims and perpetrators.

This study focused on the degree to which delinquents and nondelinquents find norm violations acceptable in various circumstances. According to Sykes and Matza's (1957) neutralization theory, delinquents as well as nondelinquents subscribe to conventional norms, but delinquents differ from nondelinquents in using techniques to neutralize such norms when participating in morally offensive behavior. Neutralization serves to excuse the actor and facilitate deviant behavior. This raises two important questions: Are excuses for deviant behavior directed specifically at offenses that have been committed (and at associated feelings of guilt), and not at offenses that delinquents have not committed? Do delinquents neutralize conventional beliefs or are neutralizations part of unconventional beliefs?

The first question is whether finding excuses is deviance-specific; that is, are neutralizations used to relieve the guilt that arises from crimes that have been committed, or are these excuses also applied to offenses not yet committed? Hindelang (1974) found that those who reported engaging in an illegal act were consistently and substantially less disapproving of that act than were those who reported not engaging in that act. Mitchell and Dodder (1983), investigating the pattern of agreement among neutralization techniques and delinquent acts, found a lack of consistency between what youths said and what they reported actually doing. Mitchell, Dodder, and Norris (1990) showed that the relation between neutralizing excuses and delinquent behavior can vary for different behaviors and subsamples. Landsheer, 't Hart, and Kox (1994) found that even delinquents who reported violent offenses were relatively nonpermissive when it came to violence that involved familiar victims and relatively permissive when the v iolent acts involved unfamiliar victims. All offenders had a permissive attitude toward acts that resulted in property loss. Dabney's (1995) data illustrated that neutralization does not function solely as post hoc justification for deviant behavior; it also serves as discriminative stimuli for such behavior. Agnew (1994) found that 54% of a sample of adolescents accepted at least one neutralization, justifying the use of violence in particular situations, whereas only 38% had committed any of the eight violent offenses in question during the previous year. In conclusion, it seems that accepting excuses for offenses is more common than the offenses themselves, and that these excuses are therefore not only used to relieve feelings of guilt after committing an offense. Moreover, delinquents seem to justify offenses not yet committed, increasing the likelihood that they will engage in such offenses in the future.

The second question concerns one of the premises of neutralization theory; that is, are delinquents committed to conventional beliefs? Matza (1964) has stated that "The subcultural delinquent unwittingly extends the conditions of inapplicability considerably beyond the point conceded in law, but in so doing he extends them along the same general lines already indicated in legal principles" (p. …