Theoretical Perspectives on Juvenile Delinquency: Root Causes and Control

By Onwudiwe, Ihekwoaba D. | Corrections Today, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Theoretical Perspectives on Juvenile Delinquency: Root Causes and Control


Onwudiwe, Ihekwoaba D., Corrections Today


Although progress has been made in past decades, the plight of youths in contemporary American society is still one of this country's most ominous dilemmas, conspicuously different from the decadence that their predecessors faced a century ago. Today, American youths experience violence, both as victims and perpetrators, at alarming rates. At the same time, authorities are quick to recommend retribution--in the form of punishment--in order to control the trends in juvenile offending. In some cases, adolescents charged with offenses are even transferred from juvenile courts to adult criminal courts or to other major diversionary systems, even as study after study shows that incarcerating youths in adult facilities may lead to further victimization and exposure to more serious criminal careers. (1)

Interestingly, scholars have noted that most chronic juvenile offenders start their delinquent careers before the age of 12, (2) that murder rates for American teens are six times higher in the United States than in Canada, (3) and that females are more likely than males to be murdered by a friendly associate. (4) Still, according to the America's Children report, (5) violent crime offending rates for young people between the ages of 12 and 17 have decreased by 67 percent since 1993. Indeed, Howard Snyder (6) aptly used data from the FBI's Uniform Crime Report and found that adolescents arrested in 2000 constituted only about 12 percent of all arrests for violent crimes that were cleared by the police. More specifically, in 2000, they accounted for 5 percent of those arrested for homicide, 12 percent for forcible rapes, 12 percent for aggravated assaults and 12 percent for robberies. In effect, the percentage of juveniles arrested in 2000 was the lowest since 1988, and that trend has continued into the 21st century. Among the most disappointing developments is the rise in female juvenile crime. In 2000, females represented 23 percent of all juvenile arrests for aggravated assaults and were involved in 59 percent of all arrests for running away. (7)

Reform-minded individuals in the mid-1800s were among the few who attempted to address the issue of neglected and delinquent children. The civic-oriented "child savers" believed that children were basically good and were outraged that youths were tried in criminal courts and sentenced to jail terms. Consequently, the child savers emphasized treatment, arguing that delinquents had deep-rooted problems that deserved compassionate intervention on the part of the states. In addition, the child savers maintained that, unlike adults, children should not be held totally responsible for their delinquent behaviors. (8)

Despite such historical efforts and the rehabilitation rave that swept the corridors of justice prior to the late 1970s, the turbulence and tribulations that juveniles face today constitute major concerns for criminologists and the criminal justice system. Considering that 72.6 million Americans were under the age of 18 in 2001--an increase of about 300,000 from 2000--this fact is rendered even more important. (9) If this growth trend continues, the U.S. population under the age of 18 will climb to 80.3 million by 2020. (10) Although about two-thirds of arrested juveniles are referred to courts that have jurisdiction over them, the solutions to their problems probably do not lie solely in either law enforcement or court systems. Juvenile courts can only impose sanctions that merely limit the liberty of juveniles or, in some cases, sentence them to probation and residential facilities. Definitive solutions lie within a combination of institutions and organizations, including the family, the community, schools and other essential government components. Criminologists endeavor to provide explanations, and it is within the parameters of understanding the root causes of juvenile delinquency that the problem can be properly identified and treated.

Theoretical Assumptions

Within the domains of criminology and criminal justice, several theoretical perspectives have been developed to explain justice, delinquency, crime and punishment. …

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