Youth and Crime: Juvenile Delinquency
Juvenile delinquency refers to not only the crime rates and arrests of youths, but also the deviant behaviors and activities that juveniles participate in regularly. To explain why young individuals participate in such activities is to dive into a realm of explanations, including family structures and bonds, neighborhoods, socioeconomic status, and so on. However, one of the most important factors to measure is the impact of peers (Siegel, 2023). During adolescence, most time is spent with peers, either during school or extracurriculars, and so on. The concern comes from young individuals becoming associated with peer groups whose values oppose conventional society standards and values. With persistent engagement, these individuals are at risk for serious consequences, negative formal and informal sanctions, and further setbacks.
Through the lens of symbolic interactionism, juvenile delinquency can be explained by the meaningful interactions that young individuals have with one another. Symbolic interactionism is the sociological perspective that focuses on micro-level interactions between individuals and how they shape an individual’s behavior and attitude. Specifically, interactions are dependent on an individual’s interpretation of said interaction, which influences how they respond (Siegel, 2023).
Studies have shown that during the adolescent stage, individuals are the most significantly influenced by peers (Farrell et al., 2017). This same study (Farrell et al.) found that peer pressure was one of the greatest influences on adolescent behavior (2017). The specific interaction of peer pressure plays a pivotal role in influencing behaviors, specifically negative. These interactions symbolize the importance of positive and prosocial peer groups at a young age. Another consideration is the impact of the label “juvenile delinquent” on young individuals and their perceptions of themselves. Once identified as deviant, societies and individuals have certain ways of reacting that further impact the, labeled "deviant," individual. Once labeled a deviant, an individual's self-perception changes to reflect how society sees them. They begin to reject the standard norms and continue to use these strategies to achieve their means. The ostracism that is experienced pushes the individual further away from conforming to societal standards, increasing their delinquent behavior (Kaplan and Johnson, 1991). The negative reactions from society towards the individual sets them apart from others and greatly impacts their self-perceptions, usually (and unknowingly) encouraging further delinquent behavior. When it comes to peers, deviant individuals are more likely to associate with other deviant groups after being labeled themselves (Kaplan and Johnson, 1991). Besides associating with groups similar to them, there are other reasons these labeled individuals, specifically youths, continue to defy societal expectations. When certain social factors like school and home life are, or become, straining or inadequate, these young individuals feel blocked from legitimate opportunities and they resort to other means (Siegel, 2023). With an added deviant label, such as "juvenile delinquent," these youths feel further separated from society and recognize that reentering society would be more difficult than continuing on their current path (Kaplan and Johnson, 1991). When it comes to society's younger population, it's important to recognize the impact of these kinds of interactions. With more awareness and knowledge, communities can help deter them from these behaviors, rather than encourage.
Differential Association Theory and Differential Reinforcement Theory
To dive in deeper, the differential association theory helps explain the influence of peers on adolescents' delinquent behavior. Sutherland describes his theory as a learning process, in which these kinds of behaviors are observed and learned by these young individuals (Siegel, 2023). There are several principles of this theory that help explain how these behaviors are learned. These include learning through interactions, specifically with closer and more personal groups, and developing other aspects needed for deviant behavior including techniques and motives (Siegel, 2023).
In regards to juvenile delinquency and deviant behavior, young individuals who develop intimate connections with delinquent peers are at risk of imitating those behaviors. These peer networks share their values and norms, which reflect onto each other. The issue then becomes the conflict between these values and norms that may reflect different attitudes towards what is right or wrong (Siegel, 2023). The theory asserts that this behavior occurs when breaking the law becomes more desirable than abiding by the law (Church II et al., 2009; Siegel, 2023). Of course when discussing young individuals, the “law” more closely refers to house rules, school rules, listening to authority, and other behavioral expectations. But even so, young individuals involved in deviant groups are more likely to be encouraged to continue into criminal activities (Siegel, 2023). As previously mentioned, youths labeled as "deviant" typically continue to fit that label instead of conforming to societal norms due to availability of legitimate means to achieve their needs. Some alternative means include involvement in gangs, which are said to create beneficial forms of organization that help attain one's needs, such as selling drugs (Siegel, 2023). This theory best explains instrumental crime and helps emphasize the significance of peers and how young individuals can be influenced.
Another theory that helps explain the interactions between young individuals in regards to deviant behavior and delinquency is differential reinforcement theory. This theory asserts that individuals, youths in particular, use others' behaviors and reactions to evaluate their own (Siegel, 2023). In connection to the recurring theme of sharing norms and values among peer groups, this theory continues to emphasize that process. When a young individual becomes involved in a peer group, they become controlled by the groups' behavioral norms and values, as well as ideas of punishment and reinforcement. When deviant behavior is reinforced and described as favorable, it is imitated and repeated so long as they receive social support (Siegel, 2023). This theory, in combination with differential association theory, helps explain the relationship between young individuals and their peers.
From what I have observed and experienced, young individuals are very involved with their peers, as well as most of them are very fixated on how they are viewed by their peers and being accepted. Going from a Catholic elementary/middle school to a public high school was a brutal awakening. The other students were doing things I had never even fathomed and had been doing them since middle school. I noticed many different levels of deviance from minor activities that typically went unnoticed to episodes of active police on campus and suspensions/expulsions. I noticed the minor activities often reflected "cooler" and more popular statuses or labels, while the more serious activities reflected reactions similar to the ones previously discussed. I think the different meanings of these deviant activities emphasize the importance of symbolic interactionism when discussing juvenile delinquency.
In closer relation to this analysis of juvenile delinquency, I have always been someone who has tried to associate themselves with prosocial peers and have always wanted to be considered a responsible and well-behaved individual (in other words, a goody-two shoes). I specifically wanted to avoid negative labels and would be very hard on myself to stay disciplined. I am still like this in some ways, but have definitely learned to do more things for myself rather than for others. I have also witnessed other peers associating with more deviant groups and changing rather quickly to conform with that groups' values and norms over their own. One example would be a strictly religious friend who became close with a group who had very opposite values to her own. In a very short amount of time, I was hearing about all the activities she had been participating in with this group that she never would had otherwise. In my experience, I have seen many people go through this kind of phase. I believe my consistent association with more prosocial peers has helped me stay on a good path and remain disciplined.
Intervention, Prevention, and Programs
Ways to help our young population avoid these paths come in many different shapes. Early prevention is a common strategy to lead young children in the right direction. This can include encouraging prosocial networks, helping provide legitimate opportunities to meet needs, and reinforcing positive behavior. In the case of prevention, there are always to help stop deviant behaviors before they escalate. In terms of deviant peer groups, it may help to make the individual aware of the people they are spending time with and help evaluate or reevaluate what their personal values are and how they match up with their groups' values. One can also provide their own social support for the individual and encourage their positive behavior. Programs also exist to help assist young individuals to create better habits. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention suggest effective programs such as extracurriculars, management in classroom behavior, community-involved programs, and others as great ways to address the issue of juvenile delinquency as early as possible (Youth.gov).
Church II, W. T., Wharton, T., & Taylor, J. K. (2009). An examination of Differential Association and social control theory. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 7(1), 3–15. https://doi.org/10.1177/1541204008324910
Farrell, A. D., Thompson, E. L., & Mehari, K. R. (2017). Correction to: Dimensions of peer influences and their relationship to adolescents’ aggression, other problem behaviors and prosocial behavior. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 47(1), 243–243. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-017-0788-z
Kaplan, H. B., & Johnson, R. J. (1991). Negative Social Sanctions and Juvenile Delinquency: Effects of Labeling in a Model of Deviant Behavior. Social Science Quarterly, 72(1), 98–122.
Prevention and early intervention. Prevention and Early Intervention | Youth.gov. (n.d.). https://youth.gov/youth-topics/juvenile- justice/prevention-and-early-intervention? page_manager_page_variant_weight=-3&overridden_route_name=entity.node.canonical&base_route_name=entity.node.canonical&page_manager_page=node_view&page_manager_page_variant=node_view-panels_variant-3
Siegel, L. J. (2023). Criminology (8th ed.). Cengage.