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Juvenile Delinquency Theories

restrainedJuvenile Delinquency Theories

By: Andrew Sandon

Juvenile Delinquency Theories

Through an understanding of causes of juvenile delinquency society may come to deal preventively with delinquency; certainly treatment of the offender needs to be based upon an understanding of the causal mechanisms that have produced him. In this paper we’ll describe three theories of juvenile delinquency such as Social Learning Theory, General Strain Theory and Behavioral Theory and discuss appropriate preventive programs based upon these theories.

In 1977 Albert Bandura, a Stanford University psychology professor, published Social Learning Theory, in which he postulated that human learning is a continuous reciprocal interaction of cognitive, behavioral, and environmental factors. Sometimes called observational learning, social learning theory focuses on behavior modeling, in which the child observes and then imitates the behavior of adults or other children around him or her (Wiesner, Capaldi, Patterson, 2003, p. 318).

In his research on social learning theory, Bandura studied how violence portrayed in mass media can have a tremendously negative impact on the behavior of certain types of children watching violent television shows. What he noted was that some children will observe and then imitate the behavior of the characters on the television screen. From these observations, we can conclude that juvenile delinquency is the result of imitation of aggressive actions. Bandura determined that certain types of children learn to perform violent and aggressive actions by observing and then modeling their behavior after what they have seen. He referred to this as direct learning through instantaneous matching of the observed behavior to the modeled behavior (Wiesner et al, 2003, p. 320). Therefore, social learning theory states that learning can occur through the simple process of observing and then imitating others’ activities.

Merton (1957) formulated a social strain theory of criminal involvement (Broidy, 2001, p. 10). Merton proposed that a society instills in its citizenry aspirations for upward mobility and a desire for selected goals. However, when legitimate avenues to goal attainment are blocked, anomie or strain sets in, which in turn compels the individual to violate the law in order to attain these goals. Lower-class persons are viewed by Merton as more susceptible to the ravages of anomie because they are more regularly thwarted in their efforts to participate in the economic rewards of the wider society (Broidy, 2001, p. 12).

Merton assumed in his theorizing that humans are conforming organisms who only violate the law when the disjunction between goals and means becomes so great that the individual believes he or she can no longer pursue socially sanctioned goals via legitimate channels. Society and certain social variables are, according to strain theorists, responsible for the majority of crime being committed in the world today. According to Merton, a society that emphasizes goals over the means to obtain these goals, and that restricts access to opportunities for legitimate advancement, is establishing the conditions for anomie and future criminality. Strain theorists have long argued that once a person is removed from a situation of anomie or frustration, negative behavior will recede (Henry, Tolan, Gorman-Smith, 2001, p. 173).

Agnew’s (1992) general strain theory offers a promising framework for understanding juvenile delinquency. A major type of strain, according to Agnew’s general strain theory, consists of experiencing unpleasant events or circumstances, including aversive situations at home, particularly arguments and violence (Broidy, 2001, p. 21). The theory proposes that adolescents are pressed into delinquency by negative emotional reactions that result from being situated in an aversive situation from which they cannot escape. This blockage frustrates the adolescent and may lead to desperate avoidance and/or anger-based delinquency (Broidy, 2001, p. 23).

Behavioral theory was studied by J. Watson, I. Pavlov and B.F. Skinner. It describes the outcomes of the consequences of a certain behavior on occurrence of such behavior in the future. Operant conditioning developed by Skinner is one of the learning methods according to which the likelihood of behavior is increased or decreased by the use of reinforcement or punishment. In case of positive reinforcement a certain behavior becomes stronger by the effect of experiencing some positive condition. In case of negative reinforcement a certain behavior becomes stronger by the outcome of stopping or staying away from some negative condition. In case of extinction a certain behavior is becomes weaker by the outcome of avoiding to experiencing some positive condition or stopping some negative condition.

Negative and positive reinforcements and extinction strengthen certain kinds of behavior of individuals. Punishment is a big form of operant conditioning used all over the world. When people are punished, it is to decrease that certain behavior produced by the individual. Therefore, behavioral theory refers to conditioning which leads to different behavioral pattern of juvenile offenders.

Preventive programs based on the social learning theory require placing an individual in favorable environment where he/she would be less tempted to imitate violent behavior. One of the examples of such environment is the social services of the church. The actual role of contemporary religion in delinquency prevention is not easy to evaluate. Its potential role is tremendous, but the fulfillment of that potential depends on the vitality of a religion in the lives of its professants. The formulation through religion of a standardized morality that is in conformity with the law (not all religious beliefs and practices in the United States are legal, of course, but the exceptions are in small minority faiths for the most part) establishes a system of social control norms that overlap substantive legal norms (Wiesner et al, 2003, p. 320). The social services of the church can do much–and some of them do-in providing more experimental, intensive, and therapeutic assistance to delinquents than public resources customarily are equipped to perform.

Also, community behavior can influence behavior modeling of juvenile delinquents. Community organization and planning represent tremendously significant possibilities for the development of delinquency-deterring measures.

According to the General Strain Theory, the major causes of juvenile delinquency are aversive atmosphere at home and school. The emotional atmosphere, the hostilities, and the inadequacies expressed in the parent-child relationships do greater injury to the child than do physical hurts. From a preventive point of view, then, it seems clear that the greatest hope for discouraging delinquency must lie in efforts to improve the quality and harmony of the family system.

Preventive programs based on the General Strain Theory refer to effective family social work: a field designed to strengthen family life through assisting individuals and family units and, so far as possible, to improve the community circumstances essential to wholesome family living. Private agencies, and governmental services (chiefly departments of public welfare) contribute to this work; many of them today, especially in moderate-sized cities, merge child-welfare services with their family case work for more completely integrated assistance (Asetline, Gore, Gordon, 2001, p. 257).

Family counseling, which is carried on in large part by the old established social agencies but which is also coming to be practiced increasingly by individual practitioners and clinics, offers much promise and some dangers. In an area where the divorce rates alone are a sufficient indication of the widespread need for help, trained and specialized skills focused specifically on the medical, emotional, and broader psychological requirements of the family can help to resolve difficulties before they become too serious (Asetline, Gore, Gordon, 2001, p. 258). Provisions should be available in the community for the individual who feels the need for advice about his family relationships. Such facilities should be competent of course. Traditionally much of this advisory function, when performed at all (of course, many persons needing help have refrained from seeking it either out of pride or a lack of available and known resources), has been done informally by family physicians, attorneys, or friends. It hardly need be said that none of these roles, taken by itself, gives any assurance of qualification to deal with the often subtle, profound, and technical problems involved in family pathology. Today, though specialized skills for this work are being developed and counseling bureaus are being established.

One of the commonest characteristics observed among delinquent children is the dislike of school and teachers. It would seem that any real solution to this problem lies not in penalty classes or special schools with long hours-or even incarceration but in such preventive measures as vigorously attempting to adapt the educational process to the needs and interests of children. The docile rote learner-so dear to the heart of the educator-and the non-aggressive but apathetic conformist, as well as the resistant problem child, could all profit by a vitalized education. If classroom organization, program of study, and teaching methods are planned to meet the interests and needs of children and adolescents at their level of development, with rich and varied opportunities for the expression of diverse abilities and sufficient elasticity to allow the individual some freedom in adaptation, there would be far less aversion and passive indifference to school (Houchins, Guin, Schroeder, 2001, p. 110). Again it should be noted that flexible programs and good teaching are largely a matter of adequate budgets and careful selection.

Ideally every school system should have attached to it or continuously available to it the facilities of a psychiatric clinic or study home to which cases of juvenile delinquency might be referred for observation and assistance. If teachers can be trained sufficiently and selected as personalities sensitive to the needs of childhood, they should be able to refer a large proportion of unadjusted children for clinical assistance early and thus prevent the development of serious conduct problems and delinquency (Houchins et al, 2001, p. 108).

For most instances of children with psychological or conduct problems, the school must continue to provide formal education to meet their particular needs as well as possible. Thus arises a perennial problem in pedagogical and administrative technique: Should “problem children” be segregated in separate classes and separate schools where groups of unadjusted and delinquent boys are massed together, or should they be brought as much as possible into contact with normal children in the regular schools? According to General Strain Theory, in cases where the problems of personality are serious enough and classroom environment becomes the source of frustration for children, children should be treated for their special requirements in groups established according to their needs. If these individuals are to be taught separately they need programs and teachers that are adapted to their peculiar needs.

According to the Behavioral Theory, juvenile delinquency preventive programs should be based on positive and negative reinforcements. Some of the examples of preventive programs with the use of negative reinforcements are confinement, boot camps and waiver. Although not as restrictive as confinement in a secure facility, boot camps are known for their rigid militaristic style. Juvenile participants are commonly organized into platoons and required to wear uniforms and to participate in daily regimens of drill exercises and physical training. Daily routines may extend from 5:30 or 6:00 A.M. to lights out at 9:00 or 10:00 P.M (Fagan, Zimring, 2001, p. 88). This program is focused upon changing attitudes and behavior through discipline.

Another popular program of achieving delinquency prevention or reduction has been waiver of juvenile offenders to adult court. By waiving juveniles to adult court, there is an increased chance that they will come into contact with adult felony offenders and, consequently, after this contact the juvenile should learn to be better.

Unlike boot camps and waiver, mentor programs involve mostly positive reinforcements in changing juvenile behavior. Most programs involve volunteer staff who see themselves as giving something to or sharing something with the youths who are being mentored (Colvin, Cullen, Vander Ven, 2002, p. 20) Mentor programs are less costly than other approaches to delinquency prevention because often the mentors are volunteers who may or may not receive reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses related to mentoring activities. As a juvenile justice strategy, mentoring is an opportunity to provide support where it is missing and to supplement it when it is weak.

In conclusion, the contributing factors that make a child delinquent are numerous and varied; they are often complexly interwoven in a single case. One single theory cannot explain the complex of conditions and circumstances producing delinquency. Similarly, application of one single preventive program will not significantly reduce juvenile delinquency. Therefore, juvenile delinquency preventive programs should be based upon several theoretical approaches and developed for every particular case of juvenile delinquency.

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