Juvenile Delinquency Theories of Causation

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Juvenile Delinquency
Theories of Causation
Many theories have been advanced to explain the cause of juvenile
delinquency. Some are quite sophisticated, whereas others are
predicated on rather basic “instinctive” conclusions that may or
may not have a basis in fact. Many juvenile curfews are based on
an instinctive conclusion that youths are likely to be victimized or
get into trouble after certain hours. For example, in August 1994
the Town of Vernon, Connecticut, enacted its first juvenile curfew
1 It forbade persons under 18 to be in any public place or busi-
ness. The rationale was that town leaders had noticed groups of
juveniles loitering in town, and prior to the law a teenager had been
murdered. Surveys also indicated that youths were fearful about
gangs, weapons, and victimization. According to leaders, the cur-
few was passed for the protection of young people and to reduce
the incidence of delinquency.

From Sunday through Thursday, the prohibited hours were from
11:00 P.M. until 5:00 A.M., and on Friday and Saturday the prohib-
ited hours were from 12:01 A.M. until 5:00 A.M. Unfortunately for the
town leaders, the curfew law was held to be unconstitutional because
it unfairly restricted the right of free movement, and hence the equal
protection rights of juveniles.

From the time of the first civil communities, every society has declared
certain modes of behavior to be unacceptable or criminal in nature.
Early customs and laws mandated compliance and punishment for the
greater good of the group, city, or nation. In the modern era, the codifica-
tion of norms of behavior is universal, and within contemporary societies the
designation of some behaviors as criminal is fairly uncomplicated by defini-
tion: Most people have an instinctive understanding that criminal deviance
involves egregiously (outrageously bad) illegal acts for which perpetrators
can be punished. A less instinctive—and more technical—definition requires
that these acts involve:

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A positive or negative act in violation of penal law; an offense against
the State. . . . An act committed or omitted in violation of a public law.
. . . Crimes are those wrongs which the government notices as injuri-
ous to the public, and punishes in what is called a “criminal proceed-
ing,” in its own name. . . . A crime may be defined to be any act done
in violation of those duties which an individual owes to the commu-
nity, and for the breach of which the law has provided that the
offender shall make satisfaction to the public.2
It is important to remember that the concept of juvenile delinquency is a rel-
atively modern development, as is the notion of juvenile justice. As discussed
in Chapter 2, premodern societies simply punished juvenile offenders as if
they were nothing more than young criminals. Very often, this approach was
rooted in the presumption that the causes of delinquency are inseparable from
criminal causation, and that all such behavior should be similarly punished.
Practitioners and researchers have sought for generations to explain why
juveniles engage in criminal deviance. Is such behavior a matter of individual
choice? Can our understanding of biology and psychology explain delin-
quency? To what extent do environmental factors influence juvenile deviance?
Are juvenile delinquents likely to become adult criminals? Historically, pro-
fessionals have proposed a number of factors that theoretically explain delin-
quent behavior. Each theory represents the height of scientific understanding
in each era. This is important, because policies derived from these theories
have not only sought to isolate juvenile offenders but have also tried to man-
age the root causes of their behavior. Thus, punishments, rehabilitative tech-
niques, detentions, and other controls have been designed to target the
accepted explanatory factors.
This chapter investigates the causes of delinquency. Several historical the-
oretical models—from ancient explanations through the modern era—are
discussed. Models developed during ancient and medieval eras will seem
quite ridiculous from our modern vantage point, largely because many of
them were based on little more than superstition and quasi-science (nearly
scientific, but not quite). Similarly, many models developed during the mod-
ern era have reflected scientific and ideological biases of the time—all of
which were accepted as “rational” explanations by contemporary experts.
Nevertheless, if we are to understand present theory we must investigate
contemporary contexts and the past. This is necessary not only because we
consistently build new insight upon previous constructs, but also because it
is likely that experts in the not too distant future will question some com-
monly accepted explanations from the present era.
Table 3.1 summarizes the types of theories of criminal causation explored
in this chapter’s discussion and their basic hypotheses.
The discussion in this chapter will review the following themes:
• Foreword to Theories of Juvenile Deviance
• Superstition and Myth: Early Theories of Delinquency and Crime
• Choice and Responsibility: Theories of the Classical School

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Juvenile Delinquency
Human society has developed innumerable explanations for criminal causation. Theoretical tradi-
tions have been developed throughout the ages as representing each society’s understanding of
themselves and their environment. In prescientific societies, superstition represented an amalgam of
spiritual and natural understanding. After the European Enlightenment, theoretical traditions repre-
sented an attempt to find the true root causes of deviance.
This table summarizes the theoretical traditions that were developed to explain why some
members of society violate the norms and customs of the group.
Critiques of
Quality of
Sources of Deviance
Theoretical Traditions
Early theories
Forces of nature
Unscientific superstition
Classical School
Rational personal choice
Politically motivated
Free will
Heavy emphasis on
Little regard for rehabilitation
Evil, shown through
Rooted in quasi-science
facial features
Overly deterministic
Brain development or
Body types
Personality & childhood
Not explanatory for all
Psychopathic personality
Too much emphasis on
Strain between
poor classes
means & goals
Minimal emphasis on
Social structures/
other factors
social ecology
Difficult to operationalize
Learning from social
Critical theory
Societal inequities
Overly ideological
Dominant & subordinate
Impractical for
group conflict
policy making
Capitalism, racism, &
• Physical Qualities and Causation: Biological Theories
• The Mind and Causation: Psychological Theories
• Society and Causation: Sociological Theories
• The Impact of Injustice: Critical Theory

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Teenage Drug Use and Delinquency
Many theories of causation have been developed to account for deviant behavior among
adults and juveniles. It is safe to conclude that none of these explanations fully account for
all cases of crime and juvenile delinquency. However, experts agree that a correlation exists
between drug use and deviance.3
Alcohol and tobacco are the drugs of choice for many juveniles. Many adults tacitly con-
done smoking and drinking because cigarette and alcohol consumption are socially accept-
able among adults. Even adults who do not condone teenage drinking often remark that “at
least it’s not drugs.” Illicit drugs, such as cocaine, marijuana, and LSD, are not culturally
acceptable among most segments of the adult population, and their use by juveniles is
roundly condemned.
Among juveniles, abuse of illicit drugs is linked to a range of problems. Illicit drug use
among juveniles has been a national problem since the late 1960s, with annual data report-
ing that sizable percentages of high school students have used drugs. During the decades fol-
lowing the 1960s, larger numbers of juveniles began using drugs at younger ages, and drugs
have been associated with delinquency.4 One point must be clearly understood when con-
sidering these data: Drug use is itself a form of juvenile delinquency.
What is the association between drug use and other types of delinquency? Part of the
answer lies in the sort of behavior often associated with youthful drug users: truancy, poor aca-
demic performance, run-ins with adult authorities, participation in the juvenile justice system,
and counter-cultural or “underground” lifestyles. These behaviors are common among many
drug users, and juveniles are often prone to experimentation when exposed to these lifestyles.
Juveniles who traffic in drugs are by definition delinquents or criminals (if prosecuted
in the criminal justice system). A good deal of juvenile drug dealing is conducted by street
gangs. Some gangs have become known as so-called drug gangs because of their heavy
involvement in the drug trade. Drug gangs are loose associations of youths whose primary
activity is to reap a profit—often substantial earnings—from drug sales. The drug trade can
be exceptionally dangerous, so that this type of illicit enterprise is also associated with guns,
violence, intimidation, and extortion.
Foreword to Theories of Juvenile Deviance _________________
Although many theories have been propounded (put forward for considera-
tion) to explain juvenile deviance—a number of which are discussed in this
chapter—no single theory has been universally accepted by experts. Many
theories have been designed to explain particular aspects of deviance (and
have reasonably done so) but were not designed to explain all aspects of
deviance (and have not done so). Also, every theory has adherents who focus
on the strengths of the theory and critics who point out its weaknesses.
Theories claiming to have found “the” explanation for juvenile deviance
are readily criticized because they cannot easily account for significant and

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Juvenile Delinquency
unique distinctions based on gender, race, class, and culture. Causes of
juvenile deviance span socioeconomic, racial, regional, and gender cate-
gories. Factors commonly accounting for deviant behavior include family
dysfunction, substance abuse, low self-esteem, disadvantaged communities,
and peer pressure.5
As a foreword to discussing these theories, we shall consider a general
background to causes of juvenile delinquency, first by summarizing common
factors influencing juvenile behavior and then by presenting a profile of
juvenile deviance.
Fundamentals: Common Factors
Influencing Juvenile Behavior

Juveniles who live in unstable homes and social environments are deemed
to be at-risk children because of their vulnerability to detrimental influences.
Depending on the type and degree of these influences, unstable environ-
ments can induce antisocial behavior in children, often resulting in crimi-
nally deviant behavior later in life. Juvenile deviance is influenced by a
number of factors. Among these are family, socioeconomic class, and edu-
cational experiences.
Family. Family background is one of the most potent influences on juve-
nile development. Norms, values, models of behavior, and other imprints
emanate from the family unit, and these factors create an internalized “blue-
print” for the child’s personality, beliefs, and attitudes.6 It is within the
family unit that children receive most of their information about how to
interact with other people and society. Healthy and nurturing families
instruct members on how to interact using functional norms of behavior,
whereas unhealthy family environments instruct members on how to inter-
act using dysfunctional norms. Thus, dysfunctional families transfer dys-
functional norms to their children.
When antisocial and criminal norms exist within families, laypersons
and experts agree that this can lead to one readily observable outcome:
Criminal dysfunctional and deviant behaviors run in some families. For
example, an association exists between marital instability and delinquency,
so that the manifestations of a discordant marital environment—such as
stress, estrangement, coldness, and unhealthy boundaries—produce a dis-
proportionately high incidence of delinquent behavior in children who
grow up in these environments.7 Families that disintegrate into divorce can
also exhibit a higher incidence of delinquency if the resulting arrangement
continues to promote intra-family dysfunction. This certainly does not
mean that all single-parent homes are likely to produce dysfunctional
children; the key is whether the family unit is healthy. Discord and divorce
in two-parent households are much more disruptive than stable, loving
one-parent households.8

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Photo 3.1
Growing up in the city. Two youths display a tough attitude.
Socioeconomic Class. Past conventional wisdom held that children from
poor and working-class backgrounds—that is, youths born into the “dan-
gerous classes”9—are much more likely to engage in delinquent behavior.
The historical analysis presented in Chapter 2 illustrates how juvenile
reform efforts such as the Child-Saving Movement focused their attentions
on urban poor and working-class youths, many of whom were children of
immigrants. Even as late as the 1950s and early 1960s, experts argued that
class background was a significant explanatory variable for delinquent
propensities.10 This presumption has since been vigorously challenged, as
statistical data began to indicate during the 1960s that delinquency is also
quite common among middle-class youths.
Reasons for middle-class delinquency include parental pressure, peer
pressure, uncertainty for the future, experimentation with intoxicating sub-
stances, experimenting with alternative lifestyles, and strong youth subcul-
tures. Having considered (and accepted) the observation that middle-class
delinquency is a significant problem, one must also keep in mind that theo-
rists continue to identify certain dysfunctional norms among very poor
urban subcultures. Research on the inner-city underclass has found that
large numbers of the urban poor are caught in a chronic generational cycle
of poverty, low educational achievement, teenage parenthood, unemploy-
ment, and welfare dependence.11 Underclass theorists argue that antisocial
behaviors have become entrenched norms within chronically impoverished
inner-city environments, so that delinquency and criminality are now
endemic facts of life.12

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Juvenile Delinquency
Educational Experiences. Educational experiences are, in many ways, a
coequal influence on juvenile development, along with family and socioeco-
nomic factors, because school environments can shape many youths’ sense
of opportunity and self-worth. For example, school dropouts and poor aca-
demic performers exhibit a higher incidence of delinquency and crime than
graduates and academic achievers.
Academic achievement is considered to be one of the principal stepping-
stones toward success in American society. In an ideal environment, oppor-
tunities for education, mentoring, and encouragement to excel should be
equally available for all children. Unfortunately, educational opportunities
are not equally available to all youths for a number of reasons. Socio-
economic and demographic factors can also have an impact on educational
opportunities and performance,13 so that poor children often experience
a very different educational environment in comparison to middle-class
children. This is particularly apparent in inner-city, underclass environ-
ments, where educational achievement is frequently not a strong norm of
behavior.14 For example, norms of behavior on school grounds can be prob-
lematic depending on whether socially accepted values are instilled for
academic competition, deportment, and study habits. Underachievement in
school can also be exacerbated by teachers’ perceptions and expectations
based on appearance, gender, race, and socioeconomic class.
A Profile of Juvenile Deviance:
Inception, Progression, and Outcome

Readers should think of deviance as encompassing the following concepts:
Deviance. “Behavior that is contrary to the standards of conduct or
social expectations of a given group or society.”15
Criminal deviance. Antisocial behavior by persons who violate laws
prohibiting acts defined as criminal by city, county, and state law-
makers or the U.S. Congress. Both adults and juveniles (those waived
into criminal courts) can be convicted of crimes.
Juvenile deviance. Antisocial behavior by youths, which includes sta-
tus offenses (violations of laws exclusively governing juvenile behav-
ior) and delinquent acts (behavior that would be criminal if juveniles
were tried as adults).
Several features of youthful antisocial behavior can be identified to outline
the theoretical progression from juvenile delinquency to adult criminality. This
outline should not be taken as a definitive description of this process, or as
advocating its inevitability. Rather, it is a summary delineation of central fac-
tors that can explain the relationship between delinquency and criminality.
Inception of Juvenile Deviance: A Life of Crime? Do child offenders become
adult criminals? If so, what effect does one’s age at the inception of deviant

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behavior have on the progression of this behavior toward criminality?
Research on these questions has identified a relationship between the early
inception of delinquency and later adult criminality.16 These studies indicate
that the likelihood of a person’s chronic wrongdoing decreases as one’s age
of inception increases. In other words, the older one is when one commences
breaking the law, the less likely he or she is to continue committing offenses.
Long-term delinquency tends to be found among those who begin their
careers earliest in life.
Progression of Juvenile Deviance: Habitual Behavior. Habitual (chronic)
juvenile delinquency is characteristically associated with age of inception,
and yet it is not necessarily associated with increased incidence or with
expertise (specialization) in certain offenses. In other words, although an
early inception of juvenile deviance is associated with chronic wrongdoing,
this does not necessarily mean that the number of offenses increases with
early inception. Some studies have found that arrests increase after 13 years
of age and crest at age 17, while other studies hold that this may be true for
some types of offenses, but not all.17 Juvenile delinquents also tend to be gen-
offenders, in that they typically commit a variety of offenses rather
than develop an area of expertise.18
Thus, it appears that age of inception can be a factor for habitual con-
tinuation of deviant behavior as youths mature, but not necessarily for accel-
eration in numbers of all offenses, nor for the development of expertise.
Outcome of Juvenile Deviance: Criminality. Many adult criminals were
juvenile delinquents, so that for many criminals the progression toward
criminality does indeed begin at a young age. Delinquents who become crim-
inals tend to be people who never overcame the environmental and idiosyn-
cratic (uniquely personal) factors that led them to engage in chronically
deviant behavior. These individuals are career criminals who have essen-
tially accepted deviant lifestyles that last well into adulthood, often ending
with long periods of incarceration. However, this is not always the case.
Some delinquents quit engaging in antisocial behavior and never progress
into adult criminality. In essence, they “outgrow” delinquency in the same
manner that most functional juveniles mature into behaviors that result in
responsible adulthood. Reasons for individuals halting their delinquent
behavior include maturing into responsibility, fear of punishment (being
“scared straight”), and an acceptance of mainstream values and lifestyles.
Superstition and Myth: Early
Theories of Delinquency and Crime _____________________

Early human communities thought it necessary to devise culturally accept-
able explanations for why adults and juveniles violate the rules and laws of

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Juvenile Delinquency
Photo 3.2
At-risk youths? Young boys pose in front of a graffiti-covered wall. The age of
inception for delinquent behavior is an important factor for future criminal behavior.
the group. The purpose of these explanations was to formulate systematic
parameters for identifying the sources of social order, reasons for disorder,
and sanctions against those responsible for breaking norms of behavior.
Keeping in mind that ancient and medieval society conflated what we now
term delinquency with criminality, it is instructive to explore several pre-
modern explanations for criminal deviance.
Many early attempts to explain deviance were grounded in spiritualism
and naturalism.19 That is, social stability came from a harmonious relation-
ship with forces beyond the corporeal world, and human criminality was a
consequence of a wrongdoer’s inappropriate connection with supernatural
powers or nature-based influences. Offenses were essentially spiritual “sins”
or crimes against the natural order, and punishments were considered to be
in accordance with nature or divinely sanctioned. This presumption of link-
age between order, disorder, and nonhuman influences became part of the
body of laws and traditions in many early societies, albeit with a number of
cultural adaptations.

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In this section, two early theories of delinquency and criminality will be
examined. These include naturalism and demonology.
Naturalism refers to the ancient practice of linking human affairs to the
natural world and inferring that human behavior is derived from the forces
of nature. Just as the tides are affected by the sun and the moon, so too are
human passions and fortunes. All that is necessary is for humans to become
adept at understanding how the forces of nature work, and develop the abil-
ity to interpret these forces. Naturalism is therefore a deterministic theory of
criminal causation, because it eliminates individual responsibility for one’s
lack of responsible self-control.
Ancient civilizations around the Mediterranean region often concluded
that human behavior is driven by nature. Natural “signs” were observed to
divine the course of human events, and offerings were given to appeal for
favors, or to appease perceived signs of punishment. For example, the
Romans had a propensity for studying flights of birds and reading the
entrails of sacrificial beasts to divine their fortunes. Romans also believed
that the moon, or Luna, influenced human behavior. Our word lunatic
comes from the ancient belief that criminal or otherwise bizarre behavior is
caused by phases of the moon. The Greeks consulted oracles, such as the
famous one at Delphi, who sometimes divined fortunes by inhaling sacred
vapors, hallucinating, and babbling fortunes that required interpretation by
holy guides. Burnt offerings were also made to discern the will of the gods
and appease them. Greeks believed a great deal in living one’s life as virtu-
ously as possible, and that a virtuous person was a good person. One
method for determining one’s virtue was to observe the contours of one’s
body, because virtue was manifest in human appearance. Thus, good people
were pleasing to the eye, and people literally stood naked before the court
while officials debated their virtue.
For many centuries, humans believed that evil creatures—demons or
devils—wielded great influence over humans, sometimes possessing them
and making them commit offenses against the greater good. Criminal behav-
ior and delinquency were not considered to be a consequence of free will;
instead, these offenses were manifestations of conflict between creatures of
evil and chaos against deities of goodness and order. Demonology is also a
deterministic theory of criminal causation.
When people committed crimes against society, they were also commit-
ting offenses against the deified order, and remedies and punishments were
meted out accordingly. Painful ordeals (i.e., torture) were devised to elicit
confessions or drive out the demonic spirits. Driving out evil demons,