Juvenile delinquency has traditionally been defined as behavior exhibited by children and adolescents that has legal ramifications, such as engaging in illegal activity (statutory and criminal). Juvenile delinquents include youth who have contact with law enforcement and those who are adjudicated through juvenile court for a crime. These are behaviors that violate the rules of a society and result in contact with the juvenile justice system. Originally, the juvenile justice system was created as a separate entity from the adult legal system in recognition of the developmental differences between children and adults. As such, the juvenile justice system was primarily concerned with early intervention and rehabilitation of children and adolescents. It is generally acknowledged, however, that the system has become more punitive, which has led to increasing calls for reform of the system. For example, the U.S. Surgeon General has recently asked that youth involved in delinquent behavior be identified appropriately and that empirically validated treatment programs be implemented with them and their families.
Rates of delinquency are often under-representations of actual behavior. Because most statistics rely solely on official contacts with law enforcement, all other illegal activity that is undetected remains unreported. To enhance information obtained from official records, self-report data from children and adolescents have become a beneficial component of juvenile delinquency research. Arrest rates for violent crimes, including criminal homicide, robbery, aggravated assault, and forcible rape, increased from 1983 to 1993–1994. Factors hypothesized to have played a significant role in this increase were youth involvement in gangs, increased drug use, and access to and use of guns. Data from 1993 to 1999 have shown a decline in arrests. The overall arrest rate for all crimes committed by juveniles was 2.4 million in 1999. During this time period, juveniles were involved in 16% of all violent crime arrests and 32% of all property crime arrests. Another indicator of juvenile violence, self-report of crime, showed no decrease in the amount of violent behavior between 1993 and 1999. One potential reason for this discrepancy between arrest rates and self-report of problem behavior may be that there has been a decline in youth’s use of firearms and some decline in gang membership that has resulted in less severe problem behavior that may not be detected by the authorities. Other statistics show that 30% to 40% of boys and 16% to 32% of girls have committed a serious violent offense by the age of 17. There are differences in arrest rates across gender and race, with significantly more boys than girls arrested and significantly more African Americans arrested than whites or other minority groups.
Risk And Protective Factors
Research examining risk and protective factors involved in juvenile delinquent behavior has typically focused on four core domains: individual, family, peer, and school/community. A summary of key risk and protective factors for each domain is presented in Table 1.
Youth who display delinquent behavior often have significant co-occurring problems. Comorbid mental health disorders and substance abuse have been found to be more prevalent among delinquent youth, as well as early sexual activity, truancy, and school failure. Family correlates of delinquent behavior include family conflict, marital conflict, and parental inconsistency with rules and consequences.
Assessments of children and adolescents who exhibit delinquent behavior are often court ordered and have a primary focus of assessing the youth’s potential for future harm and his or her amenability to treatment. Evaluations are used to assist officials in planning probation requirements for the youth as well as potential placement decisions. A standard evaluation should assess the risk factors associated with future behavior, including past behavior, substance use, social stressors and support, opportunity to commit problem behavior, and characteristics of a future residence.
Table 1 Risk and Protective Factors Associated With Delinquent Behavior in Juveniles
In addition, there are several key areas that should be evaluated in order to accurately assess delinquents, including individual, family, peer, and community factors. Individual factors include the range of antisocial behavior, cognitive skills, and personality functioning of the youth. In addition, vocational skills may also be assessed to see how the youth may be able to adapt to his or her environment. Another important area is family dynamics, including parenting strategies, family conflict, and warmth. Deviant peer relationships are one of the best predictors of delinquent behavior and as such ought to be included in any assessment. Finally, community factors need to be considered, such as support systems for the youth and family, as does neighborhood cohesion or support of delinquent behaviors.
Effective treatment of juvenile delinquents has historically been a challenge. During the past decade, however, several programs have been empirically validated for the prevention and treatment of delinquent behavior. In general, studies have shown that programs targeting multiple systems that are short term, family based, and intensive are more effective in treating difficult behavior. Particular programs identified to show change in juvenile behavior and that are cost-effective include Functional Family Therapy, Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care, Multi-systemic Therapy, Prenatal and Infancy Home Visitation by Nurses, and the Seattle Social Development Project. Unfortunately, many communities continue to fund programs that have not been shown to be effective, such as gun buy-back programs, boot camps, residential programs, milieu treatment, waivers to adult court, and individual counseling.
Much research has been done on the risk factors and developmental trajectories for delinquent youth. Most of the research to date has identified two developmental pathways, including early-onset and late onset problem behavior. Youths with early-onset delinquency are more likely to increase in severity of problem behavior over time and continue to engage in behaviors across adolescence and into adulthood. Risk factors have been identified by age and also across individual, family, school, peer group, and community domains (see Table 1). In addition, some protective factors have been identified that may assist youth in having a more positive outcome. Having a risk factor does not guarantee that a youth will develop problematic behavior, but the more risk factors that accumulate, the greater the likelihood that the individual will develop more severe delinquent behavior.
Researchers have identified three potential developmental paths of antisocial behavior. An overt pathway begins with minor aggression to physical fighting and then leads to violence. An authority conflict pathway moves from stubborn behavior to defiance and disobedience to authority avoidance. Finally, a covert pathway proceeds from minor covert behavior to property damage, more serious delinquency, and then serious delinquent acts. Further research will continue to delineate the factors related to persistence of delinquent behavior in order to strengthen our treatment of this population.
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