Juvenile delinquency, also known as juvenile offending, or youth crime

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Juvenile delinquency

Juvenile delinquency, also known as juvenile offending, or youth crime, is participation in illegal behavior by minors (juveniles) (individuals younger than the statutory age of majority).[1] Most legal systems prescribe specific procedures for dealing with juveniles, such as juvenile detention centers, and courts. A juvenile delinquent is a person who is typically under the age of 18 and commits an act that otherwise would have been charged as a crime if they were an adult. Depending on the type and severity of the offense committed, it is possible for persons under 18 to be charged and tried as adults.

In recent years, the average age for first arrest has dropped significantly, and younger boys and girls are committing crimes. Between 60-80% percent of adolescents, and pre-adolescents engage in some form of juvenile offense.[2] These can range from status offenses (such as underage smoking), to property crimes and violent crimes. The percent of teens who offend is so high that it would seem to be a cause for worry. However, juvenile offending can be considered normative adolescent behavior.[2] This is because most teens tend to offend by committing non-violent crimes, only once or a few times, and only during adolescence. It is when adolescents offend repeatedly or violently that their offending is likely to continue beyond adolescence, and become increasingly violent. It is also likely that if this is the case, they began offending and displaying antisocial behavior even before reaching adolescence.[3]

The development of juvenile delinquency

Nearly all cultures possess a transition phase from childhood into adulthood. As the world changed, so did the transition into adulthood. Whereas before, in most now industrialized countries, this transition ranged from brief to almost non-existent, it is now a significant part of a person's development. It is known now as adolescence. In fact the popular term "teenager" wasn’t coined until the '50s to describe this new group of people living through adolescence. It is believed that this new, drawn-out transition from childhood into adulthood that is common in the western world has left many adolescents in a sort-of limbo where they must seek to define their identity and place in the world, and delinquency may provide a way to do that.[2] This is supported by the fact that crime is committed disproportionately by those aged between fifteen and twenty-five.[4] However, contrary to popular belief it is highly rare for teenagers to become spontaneously aggressive, antisocial or violent simply with the onset of adolescence. Also, although there is a high percentage of offending among all teenagers, the majority of offenses which violate the law are one-time occurrences and most often non-violent. Only about 5-10% of adolescents commit violent crimes. In the United States, one-third of all of suspects arrested for violent crimes are under eighteen.[5]

The high rates of juvenile delinquency often receive great attention from the news media and politicians. The level, amounts, and types of delinquency are used by commentators as an indicator of the general state of morality and law and order in a country, and consequently juvenile delinquency can be a source of ‘moral panics’.[6]

Types of juvenile delinquency

Juvenile delinquency, or offending, can be separated into three categories: delinquency, crimes committed by minors which are dealt with by the juvenile courts and justice system; criminal behavior, crimes dealt with by the criminal justice system, and status offenses, offenses which are only classified as such because one is a minor, such as truancy, also dealt with by the juvenile courts.[7]

According to the developmental research of Moffitt (2006),[2] there are two different types of offenders that emerge in adolescence. One is the repeat offender, referred to as the life-course-persistent offender, who begins offending or showing antisocial/aggressive behavior in adolescence (or even childhood) and continues into adulthood; and the age specific offender, referred to as the adolescence-limited offender, for whom juvenile offending or delinquency begins and ends during their period of adolescence.[3] Because most teenagers tend to show some form of antisocial, aggressive or delinquent behavior during adolescence, it important to account for these behaviors in childhood, in order to determine whether they will be life-course-persistent offenders, or adolescents-limited offenders.[3] Although adolescent-limited offenders tend to drop all criminal activity once they enter adulthood, and show less pathology than life-course-persistent offenders, they still show more mental health, substance abuse, and finance problems, both in adolescence and adulthood, than those who were never delinquent.[8]

Sex differences

Juvenile offending is disproportionately[9] committed by young men. Feminist theorists and others have examined why this is the case.[6] One suggestion is that ideas of masculinity may make young men more likely to offend. Being tough, powerful, aggressive, daring and competitive becomes a way for young men to assert and express their masculinity.[10] Acting out these ideals may make young men more likely to engage in antisocial and criminal behavior.[4] Also, the way young men are treated by others, because of their masculinity, may reinforce aggressive traits and behaviors, and make them more susceptible to offending.[4]

Alternatively, young men may actually be naturally more aggressive, daring and prone to risk-taking. According to a study led by Florida State University criminologist Kevin M. Beaver, adolescent males who possess a certain type of variation in a specific gene are more likely to flock to delinquent peers. The study, which appears in the September 2008 issue of the Journal of Genetic Psychology, is the first to establish a statistically significant association between an affinity for antisocial peer groups and a particular variation (called the 10-repeat allele) of the dopamine transporter gene (DAT1).[11]

In recent years however, there has also been a bridging of the gap between sex differences concerning juvenile delinquency. While it is still more common for males to offend then females, the ratio of arrests by sex is one third of what it was 20 years ago (at 2.5 to 1 today).[12] This is most likely due to the combined effects of more females being arrested (for offenses which did not get them arrested before), and a drop in male offenses.[13]

Racial differences

There is also a significant skew in the racial statistics for juvenile offenders. When considering these statistics, which state that Black and Latino teens are more likely to commit juvenile offenses it is important to keep the following in mind: poverty, or low socio-economic status are large predictors of low parental monitoring, harsh parenting, and association with deviant peer groups, all of which are in turn associated with juvenile offending. The majority of adolescents who live in poverty are racial minorities.[14] Also, minorities who offend, even as adolescents, are more likely to be arrested and punished more harshly by the law if caught.[15] Particularly concerning a non-violent crime and when compared to white adolescents. While poor minorities are more likely to commit violent crimes, one third of affluent teens report committing violent crimes.[2]

Ethnic minority status (that is, experience as non- White) has been included as a risk factor of psychosocial maladaptation in several studies (e.g., Gutman et al. 2003; Sameroff et al. 1993; Dallaire et al. 2008), and represents a relative social disadvantage placed on these individuals. Though the relation between delinquency and race is complex and may be explained by other contextual risk variables (see, for example, Holmes et al. 2009), the total arrest rate for black juveniles aged 10–17 is more than twice that as of white juveniles (National Center for Juvenile Justice 2008)(p. 1474).[16]

Risk factors

The two largest predictors of juvenile delinquency are

  • parenting style, with the two styles most likely to predict delinquency being

  • "permissive" parenting, characterized by a lack of consequence-based discipline and encompassing two subtypes known as

  • "neglectful" parenting, characterized by a lack of monitoring and thus of knowledge of the child's activities, and

  • "indulgent" parenting, characterized by affirmative enablement of misbehavior)

  • "authoritarian" parenting, characterized by harsh discipline and refusal to justify discipline on any basis other than "because I said so";

  • peer group association, particularly with antisocial peer groups, as is more likely when adolescents are left unsupervised.[2]

Other factors that may lead a teenager into juvenile delinquency include, poor or low socio-economic status, poor school readiness/performance and/or failure, peer rejection, hyperactivity, or attention deficit disorder (ADHD). There may also be biological factors, such as high levels of serotonin, giving them a difficult temper and poor self-regulation, and a lower resting heart rate, which may lead to fearlessness. Most of these tend to be influenced by a mix of both genetic and environmental factors.[2]

Individual risk factors

Individual psychological or behavioural risk factors that may make offending more likely include low intelligence, impulsiveness or the inability to delay gratification, aggression, empathy, and restlessness.[14] Other risk factors which may be evident during childhood and adolescence include, aggressive or troublesome behavior, language delays or impairments, lack of emotional control (learning to control one's anger), and cruelty to animals.[17]

Children with low intelligence are more likely to do badly in school. This may increase the chances of offending because low educational attainment, a low attachment to school, and low educational aspirations are all risk factors for offending in themselves.[4][18][19] Children who perform poorly at school are also more likely to be truant, and the status offense of truancy is linked to further offending.[14] Impulsiveness is seen by some as the key aspect of a child's personality that predicts offending.[14] However, it is not clear whether these aspects of personality are a result of “deficits in the executive functions of the brain[14] or a result of parental influences or other social factors.[20] In any event, studies of adolescent development show that teenagers are more prone to risk-taking, which may explain the high disproportionate rate of offending among adolescents.[2]

Family environment and peer influence

Family factors which may have an influence on offending include: the level of parental supervision, the way parents discipline a child, particularly harsh punishment, parental conflict or separation, criminal parents or siblings, parental abuse or neglect, and the quality of the parent-child relationship.[20]

Children brought up by lone parents are more likely to start offending than those who live with two natural parents. It is also more likely that children of single parents may live in poverty, which is strongly associated with juvenile delinquency.[2] However once the attachment a child feels towards their parent(s) and the level of parental supervision are taken into account, children in single parent families are no more likely to offend than others.[20] Conflict between a child's parents is also much more closely linked to offending than being raised by a lone parent.[4]

If a child has low parental supervision they are much more likely to offend.[20] Many studies have found a strong correlation between a lack of supervision and offending, and it appears to be the most important family influence on offending.[14][20] When parents commonly do not know where their children are, what their activities are, or who their friends are, children are more likely to truant from school and have delinquent friends, each of which are linked to offending.[20] A lack of supervision is also connected to poor relationships between children and parents. Children who are often in conflict with their parents may be less willing to discuss their activities with them.[20]

Adolescents with criminal siblings are only more likely to be influenced by their siblings, and also become delinquent, if the sibling is older, of the same sex/gender, and warm.[17] Cases where a younger criminal sibling influences an older one are rare. An aggressive, non-loving/warm sibling is less likely to influence a younger sibling in the direction of delinquency, if anything, the more strained the relationship between the siblings, the less they will want to be like, and/or influence each other.[17]

Peer rejection in childhood is also a large predictor of juvenile delinquency. Although children are rejected by peers for many reasons, it is often the case that they are rejected due to violent or aggressive behavior. This rejections affects the child's ability to be socialized properly, which can reduce their aggressive tendencies, and often leads them to gravitate towards anti-social peer groups.[17] This association often leads to the promotion of violent, aggressive and deviant behavior. "The impact of deviant peer group influences on the crystallization of an antisocial developmental trajectory has been solidly documented."[17] Aggressive adolescents who have been rejected by peers are also more likely to have a "hostile attribution bias" which leads people to interpret the actions of others (whether they be hostile or not) as purposefully hostile and aggressive towards them. This often leads to an impulsive and aggressive reaction.[21] Hostile attribution bias however, can appear at any age during development and often lasts throughout a persons life.

Children resulting from unintended pregnancies are more likely to exhibit delinquent behavior.[22] They also have lower mother-child relationship quality.[23]

Crime Theories Applicable to Juvenile Delinquency

There are a multitude of different theories on the causes of crime, most if not all of are applicable to the causes of juvenile delinquency.

Rational choice

Classical criminology stresses that causes of crime lie within the individual offender, rather than in their external environment. For classicists, offenders are motivated by rational self-interest, and the importance of free will and personal responsibility is emphasised.[6] Rational choice theory is the clearest example of this idea.

Social disorganization

Current positivist approaches generally focus on the culture. A type of criminological theory attributing variation in crime and delinquency over time and among territories to the absence or breakdown of communal institutions (e.g. family, school, church and social groups.) and communal relationships that traditionally encouraged cooperative relationships among people.


Strain theory is associated mainly with the work of Robert Merton. He felt that there are institutionalized paths to success in society. Strain theory holds that crime is caused by the difficulty those in poverty have in achieving socially valued goals by legitimate means.[6] As those with, for instance, poor educational attainment have difficulty achieving wealth and status by securing well paid employment, they are more likely to use criminal means to obtain these goals.[24] Merton's suggests five adaptations to this dilemma:

  1. Innovation: individuals who accept socially approved goals, but not necessarily the socially approved means.

  2. Retreatism: those who reject socially approved goals and the means for acquiring them.

  3. Ritualism: those who buy into a system of socially approved means, but lose sight of the goals. Merton believed that drug users are in this category.

  4. Conformity: those who conform to the system's means and goals.

  5. Rebellion: people who negate socially approved goals and means by creating a new system of acceptable goals and means.

A difficulty with strain theory is that it does not explore why children of low-income families would have poor educational attainment in the first place. More importantly is the fact that much youth crime does not have an economic motivation. Strain theory fails to explain violent crime, the type of youth crime which causes most anxiety to the public.

Differential association

The theory of Differential association also deals with young people in a group context, and looks at how peer pressure and the existence of gangs could lead them into crime. It suggests young people are motivated to commit crimes by delinquent peers, and learn criminal skills from them. The diminished influence of peers after men marry has also been cited as a factor in desisting from offending. There is strong evidence that young people with criminal friends are more likely to commit crimes themselves . However it may be the case that offenders prefer to associate with one another, rather than delinquent peers causing someone to start offending. Furthermore there is the question of how the delinquent peer group became delinquent initially.


Labeling theory states that once young people have been labeled as criminal they are more likely to offend.[6] The idea is that once labelled as deviant a young person may accept that role, and be more likely to associate with others who have been similarly labelled.[6] Labelling theorists say that male children from poor families are more likely to be labelled deviant, and that this may partially explain why there are more lower-class young male offenders.[4]

Social control

Social control theory proposes that exploiting the process of socialization and social learning builds self-control and can reduce the inclination to indulge in behavior recognized as antisocial. The four types of control can help prevent juvenile delinquency are:

Direct: by which punishment is threatened or applied for wrongful behavior, and compliance is rewarded by parents, family, and authority figures. Internal: by which a youth refrains from delinquency through the conscience or superego. Indirect: by identification with those who influence behavior, say because his or her delinquent act might cause pain and disappointment to parents and others with whom he or she has close relationships. Control through needs satisfaction, i.e. if all an individual's needs are met, there is no point in criminal activity.

Juvenile delinquents diagnosed with mental/conduct disorders

Juvenile delinquents are often diagnosed different disorders. Around six to sixteen percent of male teens and two to nine percent of female teens have a conduct disorder. These can vary from oppositional-defiant disorder, which is not necessarily aggressive, to antisocial personality disorder, often diagnosed among psychopaths.[25] A conduct disorder can develop during childhood and then manifest itself during adolescence.[26]

Juvenile delinquents who have recurring encounters with the criminal justice system, or in other words those who are life-course-persistent offenders, are sometimes diagnosed with conduct disorders because they show a continuous disregard for their own and others safety and/or property. Once the juvenile continues to exhibit the same behavioral patterns and turns eighteen he is then at risk of being diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder and much more prone to become a serious criminal offender.[27] One of the main components used in diagnosing an adult with antisocial personality disorder consists of presenting documented history of conduct disorder before the age of 15. These two personality disorders are analogous in their erratic and aggressive behavior. This is why habitual juvenile offenders diagnosed with conduct disorder are likely to exhibit signs of antisocial personality disorder early in life and then as they mature. Some times these juveniles reach maturation and they develop into career criminals, or life-course-persistent offenders. "Career criminals begin committing antisocial behavior before entering grade school and are versatile in that they engage in an array of destructive behaviors, offend at exceedingly high rates, and are less likely to quit committing crime as they age."[27]

Quantitative research was completed on 9,945 juvenile male offenders between the ages of 10 and 18 in the 1970s[where?]. The longitudinal birth cohort was used to examine a trend among a small percentage of career criminals who accounted for the largest percentage of crime activity.[28] The trend exhibited a new phenomenon amongst habitual offenders. The phenomenon indicated that only 6% of the youth qualified under their definition of a habitual offender (known today as life-course persistent offenders, or career criminals) and yet were responsible for 52% of the delinquency within the entire study.[28] The same 6% of chronic offenders accounted for 71% of the murders and 69% of the aggravated assaults.[28] This phenomenon was later researched among an adult population in 1977 and resulted in similar findings. S.A. Mednick did a birth cohort of 30,000 males and found that 1% of the males were responsible for more than half of the criminal activity.[29] The habitual crime behavior found amongst juveniles is similar to that of adults. As stated before most life-course persistent offenders begin exhibiting antisocial, violent, and/or delinquent behavior, prior to adolescence. Therefore, while there is a high rate of juvenile delinquency, it is the small percentage of life-course persistent, career criminals that are responsible for most of the violent crimes.


Delinquency prevention is the broad term for all efforts aimed at preventing youth from becoming involved in criminal, or other antisocial, activity.

Because the development of delinquency in youth is influenced by numerous factors, prevention efforts need to be comprehensive in scope. Prevention services may include activities such as substance abuse education and treatment, family counseling, youth mentoring, parenting education, educational support, and youth sheltering. Increasing availability and use of family planning services, including education and contraceptives helps to reduce unintended pregnancy and unwanted births, which are risk factors for delinquency.

It has been noted that often interventions may leave at-risk children worse off then if there had never been an intervention.[30] This is due primarily to the fact that placing large groups of at risk children together only propagates delinquent or violent behavior. "Bad" teens get together to talk about the "bad" things they've done, and it is received by their peers in a positive reinforcing light, promoting the behavior among them.[30] As mentioned before, peer groups, particularly an association with antisocial peer groups, is one of the biggest predictors of delinquency, and of life-course-persistent delinquency. The most efficient interventions are those that not only separate at-risk teens from anti-social peers, and place them instead with pro-social ones, but also simultaneously improve their home environment by training parents with appropriate parenting styles.[30] Parenting style being the other large predictor of juvenile delinquency.

Critique of risk factor research

Two UK academics, Stephen Case and Kevin Haines, among others, criticized risk factor research in their academic papers and a comprehensive polemic text, Understanding Youth Offending: Risk Factor Research, Policy and Practice.

The robustness and validity of much risk factor research is criticized for:

- Reductionism - e.g. over-simplfying complex experiences and circumstances by converting them to simple quantities, relying on a psychosocial focus whilst neglecting potential socio-structural and political influences;

- Determinism - e.g. characterising young people as passive victims of risk experiences with no ability to construct, negotiate or resist risk;

- Imputation - e.g. assuming that risk factors and definitions of offending are homogenous across countries and cultures, assuming that statistical correlations between risk factors and offending actually represent causal relationships, assuming that risk factors apply to individuals on the basis of aggregated data.

Juvenile sex crimes

Juveniles who commit sexual crimes refer to individuals adjudicated in a criminal court for a sexual crime.[31] Sex crimes are defined as sexually abusive behavior committed by a person under the age of 18 that is perpetrated “against the victim’s will, without consent, and in an aggressive, exploitative, manipulative, or threatening manner”.[32] It is important to utilize appropriate terminology for juvenile sex offenders. Harsh and inappropriate expressions include terms such as “pedophile, child molester, predator, perpetrator, and mini-perp”[33] These terms have often been associated with this group, regardless of the youth’s age, diagnosis, cognitive abilities, or developmental stage.[33] Using appropriate expressions can facilitate a more accurate depiction of juvenile sex offenders and may decrease the subsequent aversive psychological affects from using such labels.[33]

Prevalence data

Examining prevalence data and the characteristics of juvenile sex offenders is a fundamental component to obtain a precise understanding of this heterogeneous group. With mandatory reporting laws in place, it became a necessity for providers to report any incidents of disclosed sexual abuse. Longo and Prescott indicate that juveniles commit approximately 30-60% of all child sexual abuse.[33] The Federal Bureau of Investigation Uniform Crime Reports indicate that in 2008 youth under the age of 18 accounted for 16.7% of forcible rapes and 20.61% of other sexual offenses.[34] Center for Sex Offender Management indicates that approximately one-fifth of all rapes and one-half of all sexual child molestation can be accounted for by juveniles.[35]

Official record data

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention indicates that 15% of juvenile arrests occurred for forcible rape in 2006, and 12% were clearance (resolved by an arrest).[36] The total number of juvenile arrests in 2006 for forcible rape was 3,610 with 2% being female and 36% being under the age of 15 years old.[36] This trend has declined throughout the years with forcible rape from 1997-2006 being -30% and from 2005-2006 being -10%.[36] The OJJDP reports that the juvenile arrest rate for forcible rape increased from the early 1980s through the 1990s and at that time it fell again.[36] The OJJDP also reported that the total number of juvenile arrests in 2006 for sex offenses (other than forcible rape) was 15,900 with 10% being female and 47% being under the age of 15.[36] There was again a decrease with the trend throughout the years with sex offenses from 1997-2006 being -16% and from 2005-2006 being -9%.[36]

Males who commit sexual crimes

Barbaree and Marshall indicate that juvenile males contribute to the majority of sex crimes, with 2-4% of adolescent males having reported committing sexually assaultive behavior, and 20% of all rapes and 30-50% of all child molestation are perpetrated by adolescent males.[31] It is clear that males are over-represented in this population . This is consistent with Ryan and Lane’s research indicating that males account for 91-93% of the reported juvenile sex offenses.[32] Righthand and Welch reported that females account for an estimated 2-11% of incidents of sexual offending.[37] In addition, it reported by The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention that in the juvenile arrests during 2006, African American male youth were disproportionately arrested (34%) for forcible rape.[36] Although while African American male youth are being disproportionately arrested, the most common ethnic group comprising juvenile sex offenders is Caucasian males.




David Matza was born on May 1, 1930 in New York. He received his Bachelors degree in 1953 from the City of New York College. In addition he received his Masters and Doctorate degree from Princeton. Presently, Matza is a Professor Emeritus at the University of California’s Department of Sociology.


David Matza, who focused on juvenile delinquency, is most popularly known for his work with Gresham Sykes and their theory of neutralization. Matza also ventured out on his own, giving further explanations and studies of juvenile delinquency. Because he was studying criminal activity during the mid-twentieth century, he was influenced by the social and political unrest in the United States. Even though theorists have criticized Matza’s work, it is still used by theorists today as a source of discussion on the topic of juvenile delinquency.


Gresham Sykes and David Matza

Techniques of Neutralization: A Theory of Delinquency


Sykes and Matza wanted to build upon Arthur Sutherland’s Differential Association theory which states that an individual learns criminal behavior through “(a) techniques of committing crimes and (b) motives, drives, rationalizations, and attitudes” which go against law-abiding actions (Sykes and Matza, 1957:664). These techniques reduce the social controls over the delinquent and are also more applicable to specific juveniles. Neutralization is defined as a technique, which allows the person to rationalize or justify a criminal act. There are five techniques of neutralization; denial of responsibility, denial of injury, denial of victim, condemnation of the condemners, and the appeal to higher loyalties.


Denial of responsibility is a technique used when the deviant act was caused by an outside force. This technique goes beyond looking at the criminal act as an accident. The individual feels that they are drawn into the situation, ultimately becoming helpless. These juveniles feel that their abusive families, bad neighborhoods and delinquent peers predispose them to criminal acts. A common statement used “It was not my fault.”

Denial of injury occurs when the criminal act causes no harm to the victim. Criminal acts are deemed deviant in terms of whether or not someone got hurt. Using this technique the delinquent views stealing as merely borrowing and views gang fighting as a private argument between consenting and willing participants. The use of this technique is reaffirmed in the minds of these juveniles when society does not look at certain acts, such as skipping school or performing practical jokes, as criminal, but merely accepts them as harmless acts. “I assumed that a criminal action meant hurting someone, we did not hurt anyone” (Coleman, 1987:411).




Denial of victim is used when the crime is viewed as a punishment or revenge towards a deserving person. This technique may be used by those who attack homosexuals or minority groups. “They deserve it.” This is also glorified in the stories about the character Robin Hood and his actions involving stealing from the rich.


The technique called the condemnation of the condemners, also known as rejection of the rejectors by McCorkle and Korn (1954), places a negative image on those who are opposed to the criminal behavior. The juvenile ends up displacing his/her deviant behavior on those they are victimizing and also viewing the condemners as hypocrites, such as corrupt police and judges.


The appeal to higher loyalties technique is used when the person feels they must break the laws of the overall community to benefit their small group/family. This technique comes into play when a juvenile gets into trouble because of trying to help or protecting a friend or family member.


Matza and Sykes based their theory on four basic facts seen in society.


1)     Many delinquents feel or express remorse and guilt because of the criminal act.

2)     Delinquents frequently show respect for those citizens who are law-abiding.

3)     There is a limit to whom they victimize, they must distance themselves form their victims.

4)     Delinquents can be effected by their surroundings and are susceptible to conformity.

(Sykes and Matza, 1057:665)


Juvenile Delinquency and Subterranean Values


Matza and Sykes further develop their views on delinquency as a result of a deviant sub-culture, which exposes the individual to crime and in turn teaches deviant behavior or subterranean values, which cause them to deviate from the norms of society. Sykes and Matza also argue that delinquent acts are not as deviant as society would like to believe and that normal values are over-simplified.


They observed several values present, which they define as subterranean values. First, delinquents search for a thrill or an adrenaline rush. This “rush” they seek is not easily accomplished through law-abiding means. The excitement may even be a result of the fact that the behavior is not accepted. Secondly, they do not view normal occupations as worth the work when they can make more money doing illegal acts. Some researchers also noted that the behavior may not have solely monetary purposes, but also to gain rank and prestige among other criminals. Lastly, the deviant becomes aggressive because of their alienation from society (Matza and Sykes, 1961). This is clearly seen in gang rivalries when violence is used to protect “turfs” and reputations. The purpose of this aggression is to show how tough they are and that they have achieved manhood.


These above acts are very similar to Thorstein Veblen’s view of the “gentleman of leisure” depicted of the elite upper class; focusing on adventure, low views of menial labor, conspicuous consumption, and respect for masculinity (Matza and Sykes, 1961:715). The fact that these views are similar reinstates Sykes’ and Matza’s theory that society over-simplifies criminal behavior. It obviously matters who is partaking in the behavior, not the behavior itself.


Matza and Sykes concluded; however, that their study on the effect of subterranean values and leisure time did not explain several aspects of juvenile delinquency. First, they cannot explain why certain juveniles convert subterranean values into serious criminal behavior and others do not. Secondly, they admit that their needs to further, in-depth studies done on the effects of the juveniles value systems as a result of leisure time.


David Matza

Delinquency and Drift


Alone, Matza expressed additional thoughts on juvenile delinquency. He believed that individuals go from one extreme to another in their behavior, known as drift. Matza believes that juveniles drift between conventional and criminal behavior. Drift is explained as a gradual process, which results in molding the individual’s behavior. Once the crime is committed the delinquent feels guilt and must balance their behavior by returning to act in a law-abiding manner. Drift can be described as soft determinism, which views criminality as partly chosen and partly determined. The will to commit a crime occurs when one of these conditions is present; preparation and desperation. These allow the individual to form the decision to commit a crime. Preparation occurs when a criminal act is repeated once the person realizes that the criminal act can be achieved and is feasible. Desperation activates the will to initially commit a crime because of an extraordinary occasion; or fatalism, which is the feeling of lacking control over ones surroundings (Matza, 1964).


Matza also believes that “there is a subculture of delinquency, but it is not a delinquent subculture” (Matza, 1964:33). He also suggests that there are several ways in which a delinquent senses injustice (an underlying condition of drift); through cognizance, consistency, competence, commensurability and comparison. Matza believes that the juvenile’s connection to law-abiding behavior diminishes when they feel that an injustice has occurred.


Cognizance is defined as to whether or not the juvenile is aware that he/she committed a wrongful act. Even when they are caught in the act or confess their crime they still may not actually “own-up” to the criminal act in their mind. Consistency represents whether or not the juvenile feels that they are receiving the same treatment as everyone else who has been involved in the same criminal behavior. Competence is an issue revolving around those who are in judgment of the juvenile. “Commensurability refers to the relation between infraction and sanction” (Matza, 1964:159). In other words, does the juvenile believe that their act should even result in a punishment and if so the punishment should fit the crime. Comparison results when juveniles evaluate the legal system and notice that there are laws, which only pertain to them and not adults. Some juveniles do not want to accept that they are any different from adults.




The decades preceding Matza and his neutralization and drift theory involved mass social and political movements and located at the University of California he could view these actions first-hand. During the 1950's and 1960's the citizens of the United States were torn because of social and political struggles, which influenced his work.


Matza believes that delinquents are angered over a sense of injustice, which they feel not only from law enforcement but also from community reactions. His ideas on delinquency were strongly influenced during the 1950's, which saw the beginning of the civil rights movement with the influence of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. In 1954 the Brown vs. the Board of Education desegregated schools and in 1955 the Montgomery bus riot furthered the desegregation to public areas. The desegregation produced a lot of tension, which caused some citizens to react with protests and even violence.


With these decades also came scientific advance such as the nuclear arms race following the beginning of the Cold War. The United States was also involved in the race to get a man on the moon finally ending Neil Armstrong in the Apollo 11 on July 30, 1069.


The 1950's and 60's also were filled with conflicts with other nations, revolving around anti-communism. The 1950's saw the aftermath of the Korean War, which ended in 1953. The Bay of Pigs invasion in April of 1961 and, in turn, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 placed the United States in great fear of a nuclear war. By the mid 1960's the Vietnam War caused many citizens to protest and dodge the draft because of their objection of the war. The assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 also deeply affected the citizens of America.


With all of these movements came protests. Social control shifted the focus from criminals to political activists. Protestors were arrested and even physically battered, the police were treating them like they were hard criminals. This correlates to Matza’s idea that crime is just a reaction to improper or biased legal institutions. He also states that deviance is caused by desperation or the feeling of having no control. Those protestors felt they had no choice but to express opposition towards certain ideas, otherwise where will all of the governmental controls end. Matza uses the idea of neutralization to justify certain crimes; those protestors who were considered criminal were forced to act out using the “denial of responsibility” neutralization.


Matza believes that there is a sub-culture of delinquency, which requires a collective and public effort. This can been seen amongst some protesters, thus emerged a group of people called “hippies”; individuals who were against the Vietnam War, anti-government and anything relating to the “establishment” (draft dodgers), “free-love”, and the freedom to use illegal substances. The abuse of drugs, dodging the draft and the abundance of sex can be described by Matza’s neutralization theory as using the technique denial of a victim. These hippies felt that there is no victim, the government does not need nor deserve people to fight in a war, which is unjust. Also drug use does not hurt anyone and neither does promiscuous sex (not considered criminal but immoral). They also felt that the government deserved being protested against because of all the injustices it had imposed on people, which demonstrates the condemnation of the condemners technique.


Matza’s theory of deviance stated that people choose and are partly predisposed to committing crime. With the beginning of the 60's he states that deviance is supported by excitement, risk taking and adventure. The protests of civil rights and of the Vietnam War gave the generation most affected the chance to act unconventional. These changes, however, all occurred over the course of several years, which coincides with Matza’s theory, which concludes that delinquency caused by drift is gradual and has several influences. Matza also stated that delinquents would drift between criminal and conventional behavior, which explains why not all teenagers were involved. He has also stated that those who were likely to drift are not as likely to commit crimes as adults.




Matza’s theories of neutralization techniques and drift were not without their criticisms. The theorist Travis Herschi does not feel that neutralization techniques are relevant towards describing juvenile delinquency. Herschi believes that deviant behavior is a result of conformity, or lack there of, towards societal norms. Sociologist Jack Douglas feels that the techniques of neutralization could not possibly “cover-up” the deviant’s feeling of guilt when they realize that their actions are not accepted by the law-abiding community. Douglas states that the deviant person must learn certain strategies of self-deception and seduction (Pfohl, 1994). Michael Hindelang, in his 1970 study on rural and urban youths, found no support for neutralization. He concluded that juveniles who have committed a crime were more likely to accept the behavior as opposed to those not involved in delinquency. This finding crossed the lines of gender, rural versus urban juveniles and even across several different deviant behaviors (Shoemaker, 1990). Hindelang disapproved Matza’s later work, which states that the role of peer-group situations cause criminal behavior; that the deviant act occurs because of the pressure of acceptance from the group. Since this theory is basically a learning theory, it shares some of the criticisms also associated with Sutherland’s Differential Association theory in that the concepts, such as drift, are difficult to measure and test. As with every learning theory, the question is always posed - who did the first criminal learn deviant behavior from. Also, it never specifies why or how the neutralization technique process begins.


Recent Applications


Even though the theory has its weaknesses, several theorists have used it as a basis for further study and alteration towards juvenile behavior, which Sykes and Matza encouraged. Glen Elder provided specific terms such as trajectories and transitions, which helped further the study on the concept of drift. He compared the transitions (specific sequence of events based on age) of juveniles with trajectories (pathways of life; example, marriage). Elder stated that certain juvenile subcultures reflect transitional cultural experiences which will effect long-term life trajectories for drifting juveniles. Matza’s views on subcultures were also extended with Dick Hebdige’s work on British delinquency. He stated that delinquents, focusing on a cult of juveniles obsessed with a British rock star, are torn between criminal and conventional behavior and that most of their beliefs mirror that of the adult law-abiding community. “Earnest Campbell (1969) cited Matza in suggesting that much of teenage culture is actually a conventional version of delinquency” (Hagan, 1991:569). Paul DiMaggi’s study in subcultures within schools conceptualized Matza’s theory on subcultures. DiMaggio stated that when a juvenile does not have parental and education directed towards “middlebrow cultural activity” and “cultural capital”, they are more than likely to drift into delinquent subterranean cultures (Hagan, 1991:570)


Several current theorists have looked to Matza’s theories of neutralization and drift to help postulate their own related study. Priest and McGrath’s (1970) study looked at the neutralization techniques of juvenile marijuana smokers. More recently, Minor (1980, 1981, and 1984) delved further into neutralization with his three studies, as did Thurman (1984) and Agnew (1994) with violent criminals.


Henry Mannle, a student from Florida State University, formed his dissertation around neutralization techniques and how they are applied towards juveniles in Florida. His study group consisted of boys from the Dozier School of Boys in Marianna and girls from the McPherson School for girls in Ocala. His study “examined internal criminogenic factors, i.e., techniques of neutralization, as they relates to sexual differences among delinquents” (Mannle, 1972:128). He hypothesized that girls would use techniques more so than boys do. Mannle found that there is a “positive correlation between socialization and neutralization for delinquents” (Mannle, 1972:84). He further found that males and females did not differ in their use of neutralization even though males scored higher on the deviant scale. He also ascertained that when looking at racial factors, black males and females used these techniques more often than white males and females.


In a more recent study by Mitchell, Dodder and Norris (1990:487) they focused on the “relationships between church attendance, delinquent peer association, the tendency to neutralize and self reported delinquent behavior”. The study suggested that delinquents seek acceptance from society which results in them using neutralization techniques to rationalize their acts. They also concluded that the effect of neutralization has the strongest effect towards delinquency. When looking at females, neutralization was less effective of a justification as opposed to males. Neutralization was also found to be more viable towards Anglo-males than for either females or Mexican Americans. Mitchell and Dodder (1983) in an earlier study looked at the uses of certain neutralization towards different types of delinquency.


Barbara Costello studied the effects of self-esteem and the use of neutralization techniques; which was a comparison of the control theory versus neutralization theory. With the neutralization theory Sykes and Matza assert that a person’s self-esteem is protected with the use of neutralization, which is supported with the fact that police-related neutralization has a positive effect towards deviance. Costello also concluded that those juveniles who are close to their parents are less likely to use any techniques. She found that strongly attached delinquents find it difficult to effectively use these techniques, because they may not be able to accept that they are valid excesses. Lastly, it was concluded “some types of neutralization may be more “accessible” to delinquent youth than others”(Costello, 2000:324). Costello, however, did note that further studies should be done on the accessibility of the different techniques to certain youths.


A study by John Hagan focused not on neutralization, but on the concepts related to subterranean values and drift. Hangan’s findings “support the thesis that adolescents form distinct and internally coherent subcultural preferences that have class-specific effects on their trajectories toward adult occupational prestige” (Hagan, 1991:580). Hindelang (1970) also studied drift theory when related to their feelings of obligation towards the criminal act. He concluded that delinquents have no moral barriers that would prove neutralization techniques were necessary.


James Coleman helped explain how those involved in white-collar crime justified their criminal acts utilizing techniques of neutralization. Coleman (1987:411) stated that the “most common technique is the use of denial of harm.” Those involved in white-collar crime believe that their actions did not hurt anyone. The denial of responsibility is used when those involved in the criminal behavior states that their employer expects them to. The employee also may justify his or her criminal behavior by saying ‘everybody else is doing it’; which in-turn reinforces the fact that not just one person will be punished unless everyone else is also. With all of these examples of neutralization, Coleman (1987:414) also notes that the theory “presents a convincing account of the motivations of white-collar offenders and the ways in which they neutralize the symbolic constraints on their behavior, however it fails to explain the origins of the motivations it describes”.


Further studies, which looked at neutralization techniques, focused not on juvenile delinquency, but on adult criminality. William Brennan used Sykes’ and Matza’s techniques of neutralization to help explain how women, and even doctors and nurses, justify an abortion. Brennan (1974:358) wanted to “extend the techniques of neutralization beyond the boundaries of delinquent behavior to encompass involvement in abortion both before and after legalization by the Supreme Court”. Using the denial of responsibility, blame is transferred away from the pregnant woman to the lack of available birth control or the cost of raising an unwanted child. The doctor and nurse may also use this technique to justify performing the abortion illegally. Scientific advances have helped to develop the denial of victim rationalization by depersonalizing the unborn fetus, stating that it is not a viable human life. With the use of less evasive methods, such as the “vacuum”, for performing the abortion the patient, nurse and doctor only view the fetus as a mass of tissue. Using the denial of injury rationalization the fetus is said not to posses the ability of consciousness, that consciousness only occurs after birth. Condemnation of the Condemners is used to state that those who are opposed to abortion, known as ‘pro-lifers’, are against the freedom of a woman have come together to choose what to do to her own body. With the onset of woman’s rights groups, women came together to support the right to abortion, which allows them to utilize the justification known as the appeal to higher loyalties (Brennan, 1974).


Even though Matza’s first work came out over thirty years ago it still has its place in the criminology and sociology world. With all of its acceptance and its criticisms, Matza’s theories continue to promote further studies, not only on juvenile delinquency, but also on all crime. Its longevity has been proven with theorists still using is as a basis for research even in this millennium.

Juvenile Delinquency Essay

Nowadays the problem of juvenile delinquency is extremely important and the growth of the crime rate among youths is quite disturbing. In such a situation, it is quite natural that one of the major goals of the juvenile justice system to develop effective programs that could prevent juveniles from the commitment of crimes or cases of recidivism. At the same time, in spite of the variety of the existing programs, it is still necessary to underline that their effectiveness is not always high enough. Nevertheless, it is possible to find some programs which may be viewed as quite perspective though they basically represent two different approaches to the juvenile probation. These programs are the Intensive Supervision Program (ISP) and the Youthful Offender Program (YOP).

It should be pointed out that both programs target at the prevention of crimes committed by juveniles but there exist some substantial differences in the approaches used by the programs discussed. First of all, it should be said that the ISP targets at the promotion of public safety through increased surveillance and risk control strategies. The program attempts to promote offender accountability to the victim, the offender’s family and the community at large through restitution, supervision fees, community service, support of family, mandatory school or employment, curfews and drug and alcohol screening. Also the program targets at the promotion of a long-term behavioral change by the offender by providing intensive services through substance abuse evaluation and treatment as well as other mental health services, life skills groups, cognitive thinking classes, educational and vocational training and employment skills.

Furthermore, this program implies that the probation officer visits, telephones, and otherwise checks on the client frequently and at all hours. It should be said that this program represents a phased system in which the frequency and restrictiveness of the monitoring decreases as the client succeeds.

It is worthy of mention that this program implies the use of quite sophisticated means of monitoring such as electronic monitoring that is traditionally used in the conjunction with other programs. Practically it means that the client wears an electronic bracelet and a specially equipped telephone is installed in the client’s home and alerts the probation officer when the client leaves the monitored area. The telephone also contains the breathalyzer to test for alcohol use. In addition, the probation officer can use a hand-held monitor that allows him to drive by the client’s school, or treatment facility, and detect the bracelet to assure that the client is at the assigned location.

Obviously, this program is based on the idea of a thorough control over the client’s behavior and correction process. It should be said that this program is really effective when it is necessary to establish the permanent supervision over the client’s behavior as this program provides ample opportunities to control the client’s at any moment at any place. Naturally, it may be viewed as an effective tool that can decrease the risk of recidivism among the clients. Nevertheless, this program may be criticized since it is basically oriented on a short-term success. To put it more precisely, on agreeing with its effectiveness during the fulfillment of the program and participation of a client, it is hardly possible to forecast the long-lasting effect of this program. Practically, it means that the program imposes certain model of behavior to clients but does not provide an opportunity to make independent choices. As a result, clients get used to the permanent surveillance but they cannot learn to make correct life choices without any external assistance.

Moreover, this program limits substantially the personal freedom of clients since they simply turn to be totally controlled by the probation officer that supervises them. This fact can have a dubious effect. On the one hand, the behavior of clients is supervised and thoroughly controlled, but, on the other hand, in addition to numerous physical limitations, this program produces a profound psychological pressure on clients because they actually feel the permanent supervision that can make them rebel against such severe restrictions. Anyway, this program cannot fully guarantee that clients will be able to lead a normal social life after the end of this program because they do not get used to make independent choices and they remain isolated from the rest of the community.

In this respect, the YOP seems to be more effective and more humanistic program because it primarily targets at the better integration of the youthful offenders in the community. In order to achieve this goal a number of community resources is used. However, it is worthy of mention that this program basically targets at the youths who has committed their first aggravated crime and, thus, are considered to be less dangerous than offenders that undergo the previously discussed program and who tend to recidivism. In fact, this program uses the community potential to rehabilitate and successfully integrate clients into a normal social life.

Naturally, there is no such a strict supervision like in the ISP and this is probably the most important difference of this program because it provides clients with an excellent opportunity to find the alternative way in their life after the commitment of a crime. In other words, they get a chance to make a conscious choice in favor of the integration in the community and normal non-delinquent life.
On analyzing the results of both programs, it is necessary to point out that the ISP turns to be more effective in relation to clients who committed crimes repeatedly and really need a thorough control, while the YOP is more effective in relation to clients who committed their first crime and should get a chance for rehabilitation within a community without strict surveillance and limitations.

Thus, it is possible to conclude that the YOP is more effective but it is necessary to improve or adapt this program in such a way that it could be really applicable to the clients which are characterized as recidivists, who in actuality really need more supervision than offenders that have committed their first crime.

The Problem of Juvenile Crime

The problem of juvenile crime
Juvenile delinquency refers to two types of law violations committed by minors: that which is illegal for both youths and adults such as homicide, rape, theft, or selling drugs, and so-called status offences, ungovernable behaviour that is illegal until the age of adulthood, such as truancy, runaway, alcohol use, or teen sexual relations. In most states the legal status of being a juvenile ends at 18; some states specify 16. Most states have waiver provisions whereby juveniles charged with serious felonies can be prosecuted as adults.
What forces account for the escalation in juvenile crime?
One factor is the decline of the family as an instrument of social control. Families are the focal point for the prevention of violence, drug abuse, and delinquency. A related problem is substance abuse. Serious drug abuse by youths is significantly related to crime. The higher the level of substance abuse, the greater the involvement in delinquency.
The deterioration of inner-city neighborhoods is another contributing factor. Fear of crime itself has destroyed the economy in some neighborhoods; few entrepreneurs open business in high-crime areas. The middle classes have fled to the suburbs. As a result young people are not adequately exposed to the work ethic. Informal networks of church and community groups are drained of their most prominent middle-class members. The destruction of the legitimate economy makes illegal gains from crime even more attractive.
In the criminal justice system, shock incarceration programs (“boot camps”) are touted as a method to reduce recidivism rates among young offenders. These quasi-military programs are designed to instill self-discipline and promote self-esteem in troubled youths. Typically, they provide educational, drug treatment, and vocational and counseling services to young inmates.


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