What Are the Causes of Juvenile Delinquency?

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Just like there are many recognized social factors that correlate with an adult’s likelihood to offend, there are many commonly recognized juvenile delinquency causes. There is actually a significant crossover between common juvenile delinquency causes and factors correlated with an adult’s likelihood to offend – and a significant percentage of juvenile offenders who go on to offend again as adults.

In the criminal justice system, a juvenile is defined as an offender who is under 18 years old at the time he allegedly committed his offense. There are many differences between the juvenile justice system and the adult corrections system, such as the terminology used to refer to legal actions and processes, and a greater focus on rehabilitating, rather than punishing, offenders.

Common Types of Juvenile Crime

One way to understand the causes of juvenile delinquency is to understand which kinds of crimes juveniles commit the most frequently. Common offenses committed by juveniles include:

  • Low-level theft, such as shoplifting.
  • Assault.
  • Underage possession of alcohol.
  • Truancy.
  • Vandalism.
  • Possession of illegal drugs.
  • Sexual offenses.

Specific risk factors are associated with certain offenses. For example, a minor who lives below the poverty line and frequently faces food insecurity may be more likely to steal money or food in an effort to survive. A minor who struggles with substance addiction is more likely to be found in possession of an illicit drug than a minor without a substance problem.

Read More: Why Do Juveniles Commit Crimes?

Poor School Attendance

Poor school attendance is correlated with juvenile delinquency for a few reasons. At the most basic level, poor school attendance is a form of juvenile delinquency: truancy. In many states, such as New York, parents can face penalties like fines and jail time when their children are chronically truant.

Beyond rendering a student truant, poor school attendance can increase the student’s likelihood of becoming a juvenile offender in other ways. School provides a structured routine and without that routine, an adolescent can become unmotivated and easily influenced by destructive, antisocial messages. Put more plainly, a teen who doesn’t receive the daily support, discipline and routine that comes from attending school might internalize the idea that she does not have to conform to social expectations and can instead do as she pleases. A parent’s lack of involvement in the student’s schooling only adds to this message that attending school is not important.

Poor school environments are also one of the major causes of juvenile crime. Just like a student who does not attend school cannot benefit from the structure and discipline school provides, a student in an overcrowded, underfunded school does not have a secure, supportive school environment. Students in schools where violence and chaos are the norm can get into fights, become involved in gangs, access drugs easily and develop anti-authority attitudes.

Frequent Exposure to Violence

Another factor positively correlated with juvenile delinquency is a teen’s regular exposure to violence. This is one of the major causes of juvenile crime, particularly violent juvenile crime. Exposure to violence takes many forms: abuse at the hands of a parent or another household member, or witnessing domestic violence between two other household members. When an adolescent regularly faces violent activity at home, violence becomes normalized, and she might become violent toward her peers because of her fear and frustration.

Although suffering from a mental health condition does not mean that it's more likely a teen will be violent, a teenager suffering from a mental health condition who is regularly exposed to violence faces an increased risk of committing a violent offense. Suffering from depression can put a teen at risk of becoming violent against others as well as engaging in self-harm.

Mental and Emotional Disorders

Depression is not the only mental condition that can contribute to juvenile delinquency. Conduct disorders – disorders that drive children and adolescents to engage in violent and destructive behavior – can drive them to commit criminal offenses like vandalism and assault. These disorders, in turn, stem from a variety of factors like genetics, the teen’s social environment and brain injuries and defects. These disorders can and often do occur alongside other conditions like depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Mental and emotional disorders can push adolescents into circumstances in which they face other identified causes of juvenile delinquency, like a poor school environment. A student might be identified as needing specialized education services, but fail to actually receive them; or the student may have a parent who is uncooperative with his school’s attempts to provide these services. This isolates the teen, potentially increasing his risk of lashing out or experimenting with drugs.

Substance Abuse in the Home

One of the major causes of juvenile crime is substance abuse in the minor’s home. This could mean the minor herself struggles with substance abuse or that another member of her household, like a parent or sibling, suffers from addiction.

There are a few ways that substance abuse in a teen’s home can contribute to her likelihood of committing criminal acts. One is neglect from her parents because of their own addiction. A parent who struggles with substance addiction is often unable to provide his child with the support she needs and may even prioritize his addiction over his responsibility to his family, spending household funds on drugs.

If the adolescent struggles with her own addiction, the addiction can potentially drive her to steal to support her habit. Similarly, substance abuse can wear down a teen’s sense of self worth and lead to conditions like depression – or exacerbate them. Conversely, mental health conditions can drive teens to use drugs in an effort to self-medicate, which can set them up to steal to support their drug habits and buy and possess illegal drugs. When the drug in question is alcohol, this can also drive the teenager to purchase and use a false identification.

Living in Poverty

Living in poverty is positively correlated with criminal activity across age groups. As one of the most common juvenile delinquency causes, living in poverty often exacerbates other factors involved in juvenile delinquency, increasing an individual teen’s likelihood of offending. For example, whether a student who suffers from a mental or emotional disorder receives an intervention and appropriate treatment in school is often determined by that student’s socioeconomic status. Wealthier students are more likely to attend well-equipped schools that have the resources to serve their needs, whereas poorer students can more easily “fall through the cracks” in poorly-funded schools.

For many teens living in poverty, juvenile crimes are committed in an effort to survive. An adolescent might feel it is necessary to steal money to afford food and household supplies, or that he needs to steal the food and supplies directly. This may be reinforced by watching a parent commit theft and other criminal offenses, such as fraud, in an effort to feed the family and pay household expenses.

Parents raising their children in poverty also frequently work multiple jobs in an effort to cover all household expenses, which can leave children and teens unsupervised for prolonged periods of time. A teen whose parent is physically and/or emotionally absent might turn to criminal activity out of anger or hurt. This could lead to the teen becoming involved with a gang in an effort to forge family relationships, which in turn leads to juvenile delinquency.