The most effective way to prevent juvenile delinquency is to understand the causes, risk-factors, and identifiers, and to work with any child or teenager that might be headed toward this path. In 2016, an estimated 2,752 of every 100,000 minors between the ages of 10 and 17 were arrested for delinquent acts. While the juvenile crime and arrest rates have been declining dramatically since the mid-90s, it remains a challenge to minimize child and teenage crime.
This resource is for parents, teachers, and other caring adults of children who want to avoid juvenile delinquency, or correct a course before a misdemeanor or felony. Maybe a child is expressing aggressive behavior towards others and a persistence for rule breaking, or maybe you’re dealing with a teenager who’s already facing juvenile court. This article will provide definitions, tips, resources and information to help support at-risk children and guide juvenile delinquents toward a better path.
Juvenile delinquency is the term used to describe when a minor commits a crime. It can often describe behavior of a child that has engaged in criminal activities, displays persistent antisocial behavior, or disobedience to an extreme level to which the child’s parents are unable to control.
Juvenile delinquency usually refers to a violation of the law that is not punishable by death or life imprisonment. Juvenile court systems and juvenile detention facilities handle underage offenders. Depending on the severity of the crime, the procedures are different than when dealing with adult offenders.
A juvenile in this context usually refers to a child of 10 to 17 years old, but applies to any minor who commits a crime. Although children of 17 and younger are minors, some justice systems will choose to charge the offender as an adult if the crime is serious enough, or if the juvenile is a repeat offender. Generally, there are two types of juvenile offenders: repeat offenders and age-specific offenders.
Many children, pre-teens, and teenagers are mislabeled as juvenile delinquents because they exhibited examples of perceived delinquent behavior, but maybe they hadn’t yet committed any crimes. Keep in mind these kids may just be displaying normal adolescent behavior, in which they push their boundaries and are struggling to develop their self perception. It’s always a good idea to reach out to a school counselor, family therapist, or other professional with experience in this area before labeling any child as a “delinquent.”
A delinquent act usually isn’t referred to as a crime in the same way that it would apply to an adult. When a juvenile or a minor commits a crime, it’s a delinquent act. But not all delinquent acts would be considered a crime when committed by an adult. An example of a delinquent act could be as simple as loitering.
While loitering is usually discouraged, loitering in a public place is not easily punishable by law, because it’s technically not illegal. However, some states or cities have different loitering laws for minors. The loitering law might be a city or town curfew, no loitering during school hours, or no loitering in places like alleys, streets, or vacant lots. Laws like this aim to lower incidences of juvenile delinquency because loitering often accompanies other common crimes.
While any crime that is illegal for adults would also be considered a delinquent act when the offender is a minor, there are some examples of delinquent acts that apply only to juveniles:
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to pin-down the root cause of juvenile delinquency. If we knew exactly what caused it, we might be able to eliminate it. However, there are common causes and contributing factors that we are able to list and learn to recognize so we’re better able to intervene and prevent juvenile delinquency. If a delinquent act has already occurred, addressing these issues may help guide the child toward a better path.
Positive parental or other adult influence and guidance is one of the most effective ways to prevent delinquency. Conversely, a lack of moral guidance is one of the most common contributing factors. It is never too late to show a child the difference between right and wrong through leading by example.
Peer pressure from friends, classmates, or even siblings can affect the way a child behaves in different situations. If all of a child’s friends are stealing from a convenience store, they are more likely to also steal. Likewise, if a child’s close acquaintances encourage antisocial behavior or violence, the child is more likely to rebel against laws and reject social norms. The best way to avoid this is to get to know your child’s friends and their respective parents.
Poor attendance at school doesn’t cause juvenile delinquency but it is an identifying factor that can contribute to delinquency or predict escalating criminal behavior. School requires a routine and rule-following which can be difficult for at-risk youth. Children without the support and encouragement needed to go to school will likely start missing classes which causes them to miss out of the valuable lessons, education, and and habits formed at school.
Attending a low-quality school can also be a contributing factor to juvenile delinquency. Overcrowded and underfunded schools tend to create an environment of chaos and disorder which leads some children to disengage from their education. Parent involvement in school work and activities works as an excellent deterrent to delinquent behavior and can help a child succeed even in a toxic educational environment.
Socioeconomic factors, like poor educational standards, living in a lower income neighborhood, or growing up in a family trapped in the poverty cycle have an impact on juvenile delinquency. Although this shouldn’t be used as a judgemental factor against minors, it is believed to be one of the more common factors.
Substance abuse by a minor is obviously a contributing factor to juvenile delinquency, but substance abuse in the home can also cause delinquency.
Violence at home is one of the most common contributing factors to juvenile delinquency. Lashing out and committing crimes or acts of violence towards others is a very common reaction to experiencing violence at home.
Likewise, children who are subject to violent cultures or behavior are more likely to become violent and commit delinquent acts. This may be because the child must use violence or certain behaviors in order to avoid becoming the target of such acts.
The age-crime curve explains that all young adults hit a peak age where acts of juvenile delinquency are most likely to occur, and then drop off and lessen as the child gets older. Of course, these reports show averages and won’t directly apply to every individual juvenile. It shows that the chance of occurrence of delinquency increases in late childhood (around 10 or 11 years old), peaks in teenage years (15 to 19) and declines in early adulthood.
However, variations of the curve show widely different results. The curve for violence shows the age peak at much later in life than others, girls peak at an earlier age than boys, and the curve is higher and wider when the data represents young men from disadvantaged neighborhoods.
Juvenile delinquency is more than mischievous pranks; delinquent acts can be as serious as drug-related offenses, property crimes, or crimes against another person. Prevention involves early detection and immediate intervention.
Identifying risk factors that contribute to delinquency, addressing those factors early, and building on protective factors to offset risks are the best ways to prevent delinquency. Predictors of juvenile delinquency may appear as early as childhood. There are plenty of signs parents and teachers can watch out for. The National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS) lists these risk factors for delinquency which might signify that a child needs your help:
Abnormal/slow development of basic skills, chronic violation of the rules, serious aggressive behavior toward other students or teachers. These are all risk factors worth noticing because if left unaddressed they could cause a child to further alienate from their peers and families which increases the likelihood of delinquent behavior.
Dealing with a mental illness does not make someone engage in delinquent behaviors, but it can be a risk factor or impact a child’s judgement and reasoning, impulse control, or other traits that, without proper management or intervention, may lead to delinquency.
Authoritarian parenting, as well as lax, inconsistent, or neglectful parenting are all risk factors that can lead to juvenile delinquency noted by the NCJRS.
Parents or guardians struggling financially may lack the time or resources to provide supervision; lower income neighborhoods tend to correlate poorly funded schools; children from lower income families may not get the exposure to opportunities, friend groups, or even recreational activities that might help prevent delinquent behavior.
The NCJRS resource linked above this list states that youth, particularly ages 12-14 are more likely to engage in delinquent behavior when associated with an antisocial peers.
Children without positive, healthy attachments, role models, or peer influences can be at higher risk for gravitating toward risk behaviors like drug use or other antisocial activities.
A lack of parental consequences for bad behavior, neglectful parents, or indulgent parents that enable bad behavior can all lead to juvenile delinquency.
While many factors can contribute to a child struggling at school, many correlate with other risk factors (lack of role models, permissive or unengaged parents, negative peer influences, stress at home due to socioeconomic pressures, etc). Interrogating a child’s academic performance may reveal other underlying risk factors.
Some of the above risk factors are more self-explanatory than others. Keeping an eye out for them, noticing when they occur, and intervening when you can may help prevent a child from becoming delinquent. If you’re a parent and you notice your child is being rejected by their peers and also struggles in school, it may be time to speak with a school counselor or family therapist. If you’re a teacher and you notice a child from a low socioeconomic status has permissive or neglectful parents, it may be time to get involved.
Before a police officer ends up dealing with a delinquent minor, there are organizations and foundations to help parents and teachers deal with delinquent behavior, or at-risk kids, before they break the law. Even if a child has already committed a delinquent act, it’s important to intervene to avoid escalation or aging out of the juvenile justice system and becoming an adult offender.
One of the easiest ways parents and teachers can work to prevent juvenile delinquency is to encourage engagement in school and their education. Higher education promotes social cohesion, helps children and kids of all ages learn to make good decisions, teaches self-control, and instills healthy habits.
An organization that works to help heal childhood trauma, Changing Minds, believes that a caring and supportive adult can be the catalyst that helps a child to overcome a traumatic event (like witnessing violence), which can lead to juvenile delinquency later in adolescence. They’ve outlined five healing gestures that can make a difference in an at-risk child’s life:
A little work in prevention can go a long way in helping youths, their families, and the public. Here are some specific services you might look for when working to keep a child from becoming a delinquent offender, or preventing a delinquent from becoming an adult offender:
The specifics of the situation you’re dealing with will help you determine what type of services are needed. For example, young parents with substance abuse issues may need services that help them to become stronger role models in their child’s life. While an adolescent or a teenage delinquent who cannot be controlled by their parents any longer might benefit from individual counseling.
Keep in mind when looking for the right program for you or a child, the most effective programs share three key components: education, recreation, and community involvement. Ineffective prevention strategies include scare tactics and boot camps.
In the 1990’s, prevention techniques like scare tactics were used frequently and promoted within communities. At the time, rising juvenile crime rates scared people into believing that this behavior was best dealt with by using equally aggressive behavior. It was believed that the high crime rates were a result of juveniles lacking a fear of their potential consequences. However, harsher penalties like trying juveniles in adult criminal courts, sending juveniles to adult prisons, and sentencing them for longer terms than they would have been in a juvenile court system, did not lead to the intended results.
Luckily, Americans are now steering away from these ideas. Fear does not work effectively as a catalyst for motivating youth toward better behavior. In fact, youth that had been placed in adult criminal systems were more likely to repeat criminal behavior as mentioned in the study linked above.
Sometimes the efforts of caring adults isn’t enough, and a child has already broken the law or is persistent in their behavior. When this happens, organizations, non-profits, and agencies can provide resources and services to help.
We’ve covered tips and ideas for things you can do as an adult in a child’s life to help prevent juvenile delinquency, or prevent it from escalating to becoming an adult offender. But there are multiple organizations out there that can help juvenile offenders to rehabilitate and avoid becoming repeat offenders.
You might also spend time educating the child on what a criminal record is and how it can prevent them from getting jobs they want, as well as what a background check is, and how it can affect their adult lives should they continue with this behavior.
At-risk juveniles might benefit from the structure and discipline learned in a first job. Talk to them about their options, and show them how working with purpose and making income can improve their lives, while also keeping them out of trouble. A teenager might be discouraged to work hard if they feel that flipping burgers is their only viable option for employment, but as long as they can keep a clean record, there are many exciting and fulfilling job options out there for teens.
52 to 57 percent of juvenile delinquents continue offending into their mid-twenties. Juvenile repeat offenders are not lost causes, they still deserve your support and help. They might be stuck in a cycle or a bad crowd that they don’t know how to break out of. At this point, law enforcement and the justice system have likely become involved in the situation. When a minor is caught, arrested, or referred to police for delinquent behavior, the police may choose to deal with the juvenile in several ways:
Keep in mind that every state has its own legal procedures for dealing with juveniles who break the law. Knowing your state or city laws and communicating these to your child may help deter them from committing delinquent acts.
Sometimes it takes a run-in with a police officer or even an arrest to convince the minor that this behavior is not worth the consequences. However, many repeat offenders eventually age out of the juvenile system and become adult criminal offenders, at which point the justice system becomes much less forgiving and increasingly severe in sentencing for these crimes.
If a minor ends up going to court, the child and parents will meet with a juvenile intake officer. The intake officer will work with the court systems, families, and the juvenile in order to come up with punishment or rehabilitation recommendations. They might choose to handle the case informally, file formal charges, refer the case to a probation officer, or dismiss the case entirely. This decision will largely depend on these factors:
If the juvenile intake officer chooses to deal with the offense informally, they will likely refer the juvenile and their family to a probation officer with advice or even an order to perform community service, pay fines, seek treatment, or to enter probation. The probation officer will provide further guidance and will work to ensure prevention and rehabilitation steps are taken.
Alternatively, if charges are filed against the minor, they will be arraigned in juvenile court where charges will be read before a judge. The judge will decide to detain or release the juvenile until a hearing can take place. In this situation, the judge will choose one of these three options:
Parents are usually responsible for the juvenile as well as court and legal fees that occur as a result of delinquency. It may be advisable to consult a juvenile attorney or hire a lawyer if your child is facing charges and a court hearing.