Juvenile delinquency in the United States

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Juvenile delinquency refers to crimes committed by children or young people, particularly those under the age of majority. In the United States, this means anyone under the age of eighteen (or seventeen in some states).[1]

Juvenile delinquency has been the focus of much attention since the 1950s from academics, policymakers and lawmakers. Research is mainly focused on the causes of juvenile delinquency and which strategies have successfully diminished crime rates among the youth. Though the causes are debated and controversial as well, much of the debate revolves around the punishment and rehabilitation of juveniles in a youth detention center or elsewhere.


Although juvenile delinquency has existed throughout American history, there was an increased focus on the issue in the 1950s. At this time, such delinquency was attributed to a breakdown in traditional family values and family structures, as well as a rise in consumerism and a distinct teenage culture.[2]

More recent research shows that children whose parents have been incarcerated are far more likely to show delinquent behavior than their peers.[3] Sometimes children want to test their parents' limits, or society's limits.[4] Some people believe that imposing strict laws such as curfews will cause a drop in juvenile delinquency rates, but sometimes imposing strict rules merely give the children more of an incentive to break them. However, sometimes juvenile crimes do in fact occur due to the exact opposite reason, that is, a lack of rules and supervision.[5] One example of this is that children many times commit crimes after school and while their parents are at work or preoccupied.[5] Statistics that are mentioned below explain the peak hours of juvenile crime rates and conceptualize this very cause. Additionally, mental illness and substance abuse are large contributing factors.[4] The former widespread use of toxic lead in gasoline and paint - and the subsequent lead poisoning of children as a result - has been hypothesised as contributed to a higher crime rate among juveniles (i.e. the lead–crime hypothesis).[6] 15-20% of juveniles convicted of crimes have serious mental illnesses, and the percentages increase to 30-90% of convicted juveniles when the scope of mental illnesses considered widens.[4] Also, many people believe that a child's environment and family are greatly related to their juvenile delinquency record.[4][7] The youth that live in lower income areas face high risk factors.[8]

Farmer et al.’s study demonstrates the different types of risks these individuals face. The youth can be put into three categories, which are single risk, multiple risks and no risk.[8] The risks depend on the specific traits these youth portray. Farmer et al. state, that multiple risks are a combination of aggression, academic problems and social problems while a single risk is only one of those factors.[8] For example, the dynamics of a family can affect a child's well-being and delinquency rate. Crime rates vary due to the living situations of children; examples of this could be a child whose parents are together, divorced, or a child with only one parent, particularly a teen mom.[9] This is largely because living arrangements are directly related to increases and decreases of poverty levels.[9] Poverty level is another factor that is related to the chances a child has of becoming a juvenile delinquent.[9] According to Bolland et al., the level of poverty adolescents face determine their outcome.[10] These teens feel as if they don't have some type of future ahead of them, so they commit crimes, dropout of school or increase the teen pregnancy rates.[10] Statistics on living arrangements, poverty level and other influential factors can be found in a later section. Others believe that the environment and external factors are not at play when it comes to crime; they suggest that criminals are faced with rational choice decisions in which they chose to follow the irrational path.[11] Finally, another cause could be the relationships a child develops in school or outside of school. A positive or negative friendship can have a great influence on the chances of children becoming delinquents.[5] Peer pressure is also at play.[5] Relationships and friendships can lead to gangs, which are major contributors of violent crimes among teens.[12]


The juvenile violent crime rate index dropped for the second consecutive year in 2010.[13] Additionally, the Children's Defense Fund communicates that boys are five times more likely than girls to become juvenile delinquents (this statistic is further explained below).[14] Also on the Children Defense Fund website are statistics pertaining to Black and Latino boys and their juvenile delinquency rates. 1 of every 3 Black boys is at risk of incarceration, as well as 1 of every 6 Latino boys.[14] The OJJDP website also says that in 2008, juveniles were the offenders in 908 cases of murder, which constitutes 9% of all murders committed that year.[15] In the 1980s, 25% of the murders that involved juvenile delinquents as the offenders also involved an adult offender. This percentage rose to 31% in the 90's, and averaged at 37% between 2000 and 2008.[15]

The time of day juvenile delinquents commit their crimes are the times they are not in school.[16] On average and on school days, juvenile crimes peak after school is let out, and declines throughout the rest of the afternoon and evening. On non-school days it increases in the afternoon through evening, peaking from 7 pm to 9 pm (usually night time), after dark. Curfews have been used to curb juvenile crime, typically the hours of 10 pm to 6 am, but only 15% of such crimes occur during curfew hours, while most (63%) juvenile crime occurs on school days.[17] In recent years, the opportunity for after-school activities for children have decreased as public schools have deteriorated, at the same time city parks and recreational facilities have suffered funding cutbacks, both factors have left high-risk environments for kids during those hours.[16] This suggests that funding of after-school programs and activities for juveniles would be substantially more effective at combating juvenile crime than curfews.[17]


A large majority of juvenile delinquents are men, or boys.[11] In the United States, boys are five times more likely than girls to become juvenile delinquents.[14] Moreover, there are many suggested explanations as to why it is that boys commit more crimes than girls. One comes from theorists who believe men and boys are naturally more aggressive than women and girls.[18] Another theory communicates the idea that men and boys commit more crimes because of societal pressures to be masculine and aggressive.[18] A third theory suggests that the manner in which boys are treated by their families calls for more criminal action.[18] The crime rates vary across boys of different races. They are mentioned in the 'juvenile delinquency statistics' section above, as well as in the 'cradle to prison pipeline' section below, but to review, African-American boys are more likely to become juvenile delinquents than White and Latino boys. Latino boys are more likely to become juvenile delinquents than White boys are.[14] One clear way to explain this difference in crime rates among different races of boys is by looking at their poverty rates.[19]

Changes in statistics[edit]

Changes in these statistics can be attributed to many fluctuations. Negative changes in the economy greatly affect all crime rates because people are more likely to find themselves in pressing situation like unemployment.[20] Changes in population affect juvenile delinquency rates as well because changes in population translate into more or less juveniles.[20] Shifts in population could also mean more general societal shift, like a wave of immigration. An influx of new people who are unfamiliar with the legal system could negatively affect the juvenile crime rates.[20] Other social changes, such as educational or health reforms, could have a large impact on juvenile crime rates if they create a larger population of at-risk children.[20]

Cradle-to-prison pipeline[edit]

This term refers to the population of boys and girls who live in conditions that cause them to be channeled into prison from birth.[14] The pipeline suggests that there are factors such as a lack of parental supervision, poverty, and a lack of education that makes these people helpless and unable to change their situations.[14] Though this idea might not be appealing to those that believe crime is solely the failure of a rational choice decision, this phenomenon has caught the attention of many Americans. This pipeline, so to speak, disproportionately affects minority children living in under-served community, such as Black and Latino children.[14] According to the Children's Defense Fund, 1 out of every 3 Black boys and 1 out of every 3 Hispanic boys are at risk of becoming delinquents in their lifetime, and therefore at risk of being sucked into this pipeline in which prison is the only option at the end of the tunnel.[14] Of course some people that are affected by the pipeline commit crimes and are imprisoned when they are older, say 20. However, if the delinquency cause by the pipeline were to occur before the age of eighteen, the boy/girls would then become juvenile delinquents. Keeping in mind the existence of the male phenomenon, one can safely say that the pipeline affects more boys than girls.[14] The Children's Defense Fund has created a campaign to try to halt the spread of this phenomenon that is ruining the lives of so many poverty-stricken families and minorities.[14] The campaign is called the 'Cradle to Prison Pipeline Campaign' and was launched in 2008 in Washington DC, at Howard University.[14] Howard University is a historically black university. The campaign argues that the US government spends more money on incarcerated people than on each child in the public school system.[14] Their vision is that if this budgeting were reversed, the number of juvenile delinquents would greatly decrease.[14] The ultimate goal of this campaign is to increase support for preventive measures and resources that children need to stay on the right path.[14] Some of the programs this campaign includes increasing early childhood education and guidance, as well as increasing health and mental health coverage and counseling.[14] To date, many states have responded to this campaign by forming coalitions and holding conventions in which they formulate ideas and tactics to dismantle the pipeline.[14]

Legal changes[edit]

The United States federal government enacted legislation to unify the handling of juvenile delinquents, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Act of 1974. The act created the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) within the Justice Department to administer grants for juvenile crime-combating programs (currently only about 900,000 dollars a year), gather national statistics on juvenile crime, fund research on youth crime and administer four anti-confinement mandates regarding juvenile custody. Specifically, the act orders:

  • Deinstitutionalization: Youths charged with "status" offenses that would not be crimes if committed by adults, such as truancy, running away and being caught with alcohol or tobacco, must be "deinstitutionalized," which in this case really means that, with certain exceptions (e.g., minor in possession of a handgun), status offenders may not be detained by police or confined. Alleged problems with this mandate are that it overrides state and local law,[21] limits the discretion of law enforcement officers and prevents the authorities' ability to reunify an offender with his family.[21]
  • Segregation: Arrested youths must be strictly segregated from adults in custody. Under this "out of sight and sound" mandate, juveniles cannot be served food by anyone who serves jailed adults nor can a juvenile walk down a corridor past a room where an adult is being interrogated. This requirement forces local authorities to either free juveniles or maintain expensive duplicate facilities and personnel.[21] Small cities, towns and rural areas are especially hard hit, drastically raising those taxpayers' criminal justice costs. Supporters of the system point to lower sexual assault rates when adults and children are separated.
  • Jail and Lockup Removal: As a general rule, youths subject to the original jurisdiction of juvenile courts cannot be held in jails and lockups in which adults may be detained. The act provides for a six-hour exception for identification, processing, interrogation and transfer to juvenile facilities, court or detention pending release to parents. The act also provides an exception of 24 hours for rural areas only.[21]
  • Over representation of minority youths: States must systematically try to reduce confinement of minority youths to the proportion of those groups in the population.

One of the most notable causes of juvenile delinquency is fiat, i.e. the declaration that a juvenile is delinquent by the juvenile court system without any trial, and upon finding only probable cause. Many states have laws that presuppose the less harsh treatment of juvenile delinquents than adult counterparts’ treatment. In return, the juvenile surrenders certain constitutional rights, such as a right to trial by jury, the right to cross-examine, and even the right to a speedy trial. Notable writings by reformers such as Jerome G. Miller[22] show that very few juvenile delinquents actually broke any law. Most were simply rounded up by the police after some event that possibly involved criminal action. They were brought before juvenile court judges who made findings of delinquency, simply because the police action established probable cause.

In 1967, the United States Supreme Court decided the case In re Gault, that established the protection of many, but not all, procedural rights of juveniles in court proceedings, such as the right to counsel and right to refuse self-incrimination.

Preventing juvenile delinquency[edit]

An effective way of preventing juvenile delinquency and keeping at-risk children away from crime is to tackle the problem before it happens.[4] This entails looking at the causes of crime among teens and making an effort to reduce or eliminate said causes. Some causes, though hard to eliminate, seem plausible.[according to whom?] An example of this is improving the environment at home, through employment opportunities for the parents, educational opportunities for the children, and counseling and rehabilitation services if need be. These changes would not only promote a more positive environment at home, but would also work towards pulling at-risk families out of poverty. Another possible change could be the interaction of the community these adolescents live in.[23] The involvement of neighbors could decrease the chances of violence among these communities.[23] In Craig Pinkney's TedTalk speech, “The Real Roots of Youth Violence”, he states that people do things to be heard and seen in their communities.[23] A cause that is more difficult to eliminate is mental illness, because sometimes these illnesses are present at birth. Still, counseling and rehabilitation might aid in reducing the negative effects of these illness, such as irrational and violent behavior. One cause that seems almost impossible to eliminate is the rational and irrational choice idea. As mentioned above, some people believe that all crime comes down to a single situation in which an individual must make a rational or irrational decision, to commit the crime, or to not.[11] Those that believe that this rational choice option is tied to the very immutable nature of the person would have a hard time believing that there is any way to control the choices children make and eliminate the causes of juvenile delinquency.

There are many foundations and organizations around the United States that have dedicated themselves to the reduction and elimination of juvenile delinquency. Many of these organizations spend their time and money controlling for the causes of juvenile delinquency mentioned above. Below are a few agencies that work on preventing juvenile delinquency, though this list is not all encompassing by any means. Links for these foundations and organizations can be found in the #External links section below.

  • Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention: Forming part of the US Department of Justice, this prevention agency is a governmental organization focuses on all types of research, prevention programs, and rehabilitation programs for juveniles as offenders and victims.[24] Through collaboration, this organizations aims to improve juvenile justice policies and practices and create safer communities and neighborhoods.[24] The OJJDP helps victims of kidnapping, as well as victims of sexual exploitation.[25] Currently, the OJJDP is working to prevent gang involvement/crime, girl's delinquency, and the under-aged consumption of alcohol.[25] This foundation is important because it guides real-life policy changes that pertain to juvenile justice and juvenile delinquency.
  • The Innocence Project: The main goal of this organization is not to reduce juvenile delinquency, but rather, to liberate juveniles that were falsely convicted of crimes. Though this foundation is not primarily focused on reducing juvenile delinquency, it has done a good job of freeing falsely convicted teens in the past.[26]
  • Annie E Casie Foundation: The goal of this foundation is to provide a brighter and safer future for children from under-served communities around the US. Its major initiatives include: child welfare strategy group, civic sites, family economic success, juvenile detention alternatives initiative (JDAI), KIDS COUNT, leadership development, and making connections. The KIDS COUNT initiative collects annual data on the well-being of children all-round the US and publishes state-specific reports as well as state comparisons. The JDAI focuses on providing a bright and healthy future as adults for children involved in the juvenile justice system.[27]
  • National Gang Center: This a website that provides anyone on the web with information about the gang problem in the US. It includes research done by the NGC and FAQs. There is also a list of resources on how to identify if your city has a gang problem and how to combat this problem.[28] This foundation helps the people within the struggling communities be the ones to solve their own gang problems.
  • Best Friends Organization: This organization focuses on the overall well-being of children in the US. It focuses on physical and emotional well-being and helps children develop healthy relationships and useful skills.[29] This organization is an example of an organization that works towards preventing problems before they occur. Instead of focusing on the elimination of current juvenile delinquency, this organization works on creating healthy and happy children that will not resort to crime.
  • Reach for Youth : This organization is available in Indianapolis, Indiana.[30] This organization was invented to encourage teens to graduate and develop ways to say no to peer pressure.[30] These teens were on the brim of being incarcerated, kicked out of school, or delinquency, and The Reach for Youth organization turned these adolescents around.[30] ----

Ways to improve juvenile delinquency in the United States[edit]

1. Community-based Programs: We can start by stopping relying on confinement and instead focus more on increasing community-based programming. In adolescence, the brain is still immature and sensitive. An adolescent needs parent figure guidance, academic success, peer groups interaction, for healthy development. Confinement should only come in during rare cases, like when a youth poses a high risk of harming others.[31]

2. Counselling of the Offenders: To prevent reoffending, the system should involve the affected families and communities in molding and guiding the youth-joining youth groups, volunteer groups, all found in the community.[31] These activities will provide an opportunity for the youth to interact in a safe social environment. The courts can also implement helpful social services for the ex-offender; such as job placement, counseling, school follow-up, etc.[31] The youths’ performance data should be made available to both the public and the policymakers. The system meet will be able to meet its aim of holding the youth accountable. It is also good to involve an outside eye. No jurisdiction should monitor its juvenile system to ensure transparency.

3. Social Workers Participation: Social workers bring social justice and social change to the society. Social workers are sensitive to cultural and ethnic diversity and strive to end discrimination, oppression, poverty, and other forms of social injustice.[32] The Social service workforce plays a crucial role in societies by supporting children and families in eradicating poverty, identifying and assessing risks, enhanced access to delivery of social facilities to facilitate child and family well-being.[33] The workers work on restoring normalcy through critical community services such as child care, mental health services, elder and foster care, housing, jobs, schools, and many more.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Statistical Briefing Book". ojjdp.gov.
  2. ^ Wills, Abigail (August 12, 2009). "Youth culture and crime: what can we learn from history?". History Extra. Retrieved March 23, 2022.
  3. ^ Shaw, Terry; Bright, Charlotte; Sharpe, Tanya (2015). "Child welfare outcomes for youth in care as a result of parental death or parental incarceration". Ebscohost. 42: 112–120. doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2015.01.002. PMID 25641050.
  4. ^ a b c d e "Statistics and References on Juvenile Delinquency". aboutjuveniledelinquents.com.
  5. ^ a b c d "About Juvenile Delinquents - What is Juvenile Delinquency". aboutjuveniledelinquents.com.
  6. ^ Reyes, Jessica Wolpaw (May 2007). "Environmental Policy as Social Policy? The Impact of Childhood Lead Exposure on Crime". NBER Working Paper No. 13097. doi:10.3386/w13097.
  7. ^ "Statistics and References on Juvenile Delinquency". aboutjuveniledelinquents.com.[verification needed]
  8. ^ a b c Farmer, Thomas W, et al. “Exploring Risk in Early Adolescent African American Youth.” American Journal of Community Psychology, vol. 33, no. 1-2, 2004, pp. 51–59., doi:10.1023/B:AJCP.0000014318.16652.30.
  9. ^ a b c National Center for Juvenile Justice. "Poverty status of children by family structure, 2010". ojjdp.gov.
  10. ^ a b Bolland, John M, et al. “The Origins of Hopelessness among Inner-City African-American Adolescents.” American Journal of Community Psychology, vol. 36, no. 3-4, 2005, pp. 293–305., doi:10.1007/s10464-005-8627-x.
  11. ^ a b c Eadie, T. & Morley, R. (2003) ‘Crime, Justice and Punishment’ in Baldock, J. et al. (eds) Social Policy (3rd edn.) Oxford: Oxford University Press
  12. ^ "Frequently Asked Questions About Gangs". nationalgangcenter.gov.
  13. ^ National Center for Juvenile Justice. "Frequently Asked Questions about Juveniles as Offenders". ojjdp.gov.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p "Cradle to Prison Pipeline 2007 Full Report".
  15. ^ a b http://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/offenders/qa03105.asp?qaDate=2008
  16. ^ a b "4. Provide Opportunities for Children and Youth".
  17. ^ a b "Juvenile violent crime time of day(Offenders per 1,000 juvenile violent crime offenders)".
  18. ^ a b c Walklate, S (2003) Understanding Criminology – Current Theoretical Debates, 2nd edition, Maidenhead: Open University Press
  19. ^ "Reports & Publications Archive" (PDF).
  20. ^ a b c d "Overview". ojjdp.gov.
  21. ^ a b c d "The Long Arm of Federal Juvenile Crime Law Shortened". Archived from the original on 2006-11-30. Retrieved 2006-12-12.
  22. ^ Miller, Jerome G. (1991). Last One Over the Wall. Ohio State University Press. ISBN 978-0-8142-0758-1.
  23. ^ a b c "The Real Roots of Youth Violence | Craig Pinkney | TEDxBrum". Youtube. 17 October 2018.
  24. ^ a b "About OJJDP". ojjdp.gov.
  25. ^ a b "Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention". ojjdp.gov.
  26. ^ "Home — The Innocence Project". innocenceproject.org.
  27. ^ "Our Work". The Annie E. Casey Foundation.
  28. ^ "Publications and National Youth Gang Surveys". nationalgangcenter.gov.
  29. ^ Elliott Glover; Best Friends Foundation. "Best Friends Foundation: Youth Risk Avoidance and Character Education". bestfriendsfoundation.org.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  30. ^ a b c Study-Campbell, Michelle (18 April 2014). "Take Advantage of Existing Programs That Help Youth". IndyStar.
  31. ^ a b c "Delinquent Behavior and Recidivism Among Juveniles in the Southeastern United States - ProQuest". www.proquest.com. Retrieved 2022-05-23.
  32. ^ "National Association of Social Workers (NASW)". NASW - National Association of Social Workers. Retrieved 2022-05-23.
  33. ^ "Guidelines to strengthen social service workforce for child protection". www.unicef.org. Retrieved 2022-05-23.

External links[edit]