Delinquency is not an inherited trait, like some forms of diseases or alcoholism. It is acquired through parental neglect, poverty, environment, frustration at society, and, perhaps most important of all, peer pressure. Juvenile delinquency is no different from adult delinquency. It is a blatant and often persistent disregard for law and order, for moral and ethical standards and for the rights of others.
While some figures now tend to show crime as diminishing overall (perhaps one of the few things the FBI can crow about) it is a fact that gang membership among juveniles is on the rise. What makes juvenile delinquency and gang membership even more frightening are the statistics which show the ever-younger criminals in this country. Juvenile crime statistics show that offenders under the age of 15 represent the leading edge of the juvenile crime problem. “Violent crime grew some 94% among these youngsters from 1990 to 1995- compared with 47% for older youth….Americans are very concerned about juvenile crimes, especially violent crimes.” (Krisberg 1996 214) The trend, therefore, is toward increasing delinquency and crimes committed by ever-younger children. “Homicides by teenagers have more than doubled over the past decade and the public is very concerned about the easy availability of guns for our youth.” (Krisberg 1996 214). Of course, as far as society is concerned, it is not merely juvenile delinquency but its punishment that is a major concern. “It has been a long-0standing belief in the united States that juveniles who kill, rape and rob, be treated differently than adult offenders” (Macko 1996 1). As juvenile crimes increase, and become more violent, this feeling is changing.
There are various factors increasing this trend: “Experts agree that the rise in juvenile crime has been fueled by the growing influence of a culture ruled by weapons, drugs, and gangs, and by the breakdown of families and communities, as more and more young people grow up in poverty and in single-parent households.” (Cong. Digest 1996 193)
With the youth population projected to increase by 31 percent by 2010, “many criminologists and policymakers warn of an unprecedented juvenile crime wave in the next decade.” (Cong. Digest 1996 193) The questions, therefore, can be summarized this way:
1. Who holds responsibility for juveniles and their behavior?
2. How stringent a “law and order” enforcement should be developed?
3. Is it the Federal government’s role to be the enforcer, or the state’s, or the local community’s.
4. How can gangs’ influence over juveniles be reduced or eliminated?
5. Is spending more tax dollars the best answer?
There are, unfortunately no easy or simple answers to any of these questions. The problem of a serious crackdown by police and law enforcement authorities is no answer, either. For example, “…in 1992, A Chicago ordinance provided that whenever a police officer observes a person whom he reasonably believes to be a criminal street-gang member loitering in any public place with one or more persons, he shall order those persons dispersed from that area…” (Brooks 1997 67) The Illinois courts found the ordinance unconstitutional because it did not specifically target criminal activity. A more direct ordinance in Tacoma, Washington, was upheld because it very specifically was aimed at drug-related gang activities. In other words, restrictive narrowly-defined laws could be said to hamper the police, especially when they anticipate but do not actually see criminal gang activity. For the strict law-and-order advocate, this is another case of potential police enforcement down the drain.
Juvenile crime is not just on the increase, with the police hamstrung in many areas because of laws that bind juveniles over to juvenile authorities (even though they had committed adult crimes), but juveniles have become a swarm. Parts of gangs that are moving out of poverty rows and into the suburbs and the rural areas of America. Here are some examples of this spread:
“The Posse thoroughly covered all the territory it could get in New York, and then started expanding to Washington, Baltimore and Miami….Chicago has 125 separate youth gangs, ranging in size from 40 to 3,000 members. The worst gangs are also spreading out to Miami and other Southern cities to start new chapters, sell drugs and make money…..Police estimate that Los Angeles has hundreds of street gangs and gang chapters. The total number of members could be as high as 70,000” (Webb 1995 47). While some of the leaders of the large gangs tend to be adults (even in their thirties and forties) more and more members are teenagers. Why do even rich teenagers join gangs? Not just for thrills and excitement, drugs, girls, and money. “Many teens feel that they don’t belong anywhere” (Webb 1995 10). It is peer pressure, and the preference of young teenagers to “hang out” with their own age groups, rather than stay home with their parents (assuming they have parents).
In visiting a juvenile court facility, the prosecutors and defense attorneys often plea bargain. One reason is that most juvenile defense lawyers are public defenders who know their charges only by a file number. The one person who may get to know juvenile offenders best is the parole officer. Given the overwhelming number of juveniles rushed through the system, and lean budgets, these parole officers have nearly impossible work-loads.
Currently, in Los Angeles, for example, the typical parole officer’s “population” is made up of 40% Hispanic, 30% black, 20% white, and 10% other. There are about 400 parolees now under a parole agent’s office’s supervision. The average age of the parolee is 18.5. These parolees have been released from some sort of penal institution and must now undergo counseling and supervision for a specified term. Nearly 90% have had (or still have) gang affiliation. Therefore, most parole officers know instinctively that these juveniles will be arrested and jailed again and again, until they may remain in prison for life. Of course, these officers are only attempting to counsel, with limited time and budget. They are seldom optimistic that their counseling is even being heard, much less understood. The pressures of no, or low-paying jobs and peer pressure keep many juveniles becoming repeat offenders.
In court, the empty eyes of most of these juveniles proves that they are ignorant of most everything except the urge to survive somehow. For the most part, the juvenile offenders are not terribly well educated. The few white, offenders are the only ones seemingly represented by “real” lawyers. And, just as naturally, they are usually sentenced to probation and community service. The rich, even rich juveniles, get away with things that inner city minority juveniles get sent away for
much can we fault the family? There are critics that blame the single-parent household: “Children from single-parent families are more prone to commit crime. This is because unmarried mothers often lack the skills to support a family or manage a household. They are more likely to drop out of school become pregnant as teenagers, to abuse drugs, and be in trouble with the law” (Maginnis 1997 64).
The Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency goes even further: “children from fatherless families use drugs more heavily and commit more crimes throughout their lives….are more likely to be gang members…make up more than 70% of inmates in state reform institutions…account for about 76% of adolescent murders…and are 70% more likely to be expelled from school” (Maginnis 1997 64). On the other hand, studies have also shown that “marital discord, not lack of one parent, can cause delinquency problems.” (Wright 1997 69). It could also be the environment outside the home (i.e. “bad” neighborhoods which create a social status) that could put a youngster more at risk than what happens inside the home.
There are also those who blame moral values. A Philadelphia study has shown that 6 percent of the boys have committed 50% of the crimes. “It is on this basis that James Q. Wilson and other crime doctors can predict with confidence that the additional 300,000 boys who will be 14 to 17 years old in the year 2003 will mean at least 30,000 more murderers, rapists and muggers on the streets than we do today” (DeJulio 1997 111). Statistics alone cannot account for juvenile delinquency and gangs today or in the future. Conservatives have come up with what they call “The theory of moral poverty”. By definition this means being without loving, caring, responsible adults who teach you right from wrong. There is also another idea: There are children in America who have never been touched or told that they matter. The emphasis here is on the word CHILDREN.
Psychological discussions why children become and remain criminals is an ongoing full-time task. It does bring up one question: Should children who commit violent crimes be punished and treated as adults? Former LA District Attorney Gil Garcetti is a pro-punishment advocate. “Remove violent offenders from the juvenile justice system….limit juvenile confidentiality…deliver real rehabilitation…make juveniles and their parents accountable…intervene early to prevent problems later…” (Garcetti 1997 176-7)
Are there any quick-fix programs? Federal mandates and regulations are often politically inspired The government attacks on two fronts: preventing delinquency and improving the juvenile justice system. Various other government funding operations have been issued to universities and colleges for evaluation of the criminal justice system, finding means of reducing juvenile drop-out numbers in public schools, providing parental education and setting up new guidelines for police procedures. Nothing seems to have truly reduced juvenile delinquency, gang affiliation and violent crimes committed by teen-agers. Again, one needs to ask: should serious juvenile crimes be punished as adult crimes? “A study by the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives…points to the ineffectiveness of state laws allowing juveniles to be tried as adults. The group found that the states which do so had not reduced juvenile crime” (Carney 1997 847).
Poverty, family morality, peer pressure, drug use and greed may be the major links to increasing juvenile gangs and crime. However, one additional factor must be mentioned: the role of the media in publicizing, crime and criminals. Crime and criminals get attention, and for some uneducated poor young people, publicity is something they seek for getting attention. “Numerous studies of media content have documented the fact that crime reports are a durable news commodity…the proportion of news now devoted to crime coverage range from 5 to 25%” (Lambert 1995 143). This was written prior to the Columbine massacre, the Washington DC teen-ager sniper and the advent of Court TV. Today, joyriding carjackers are tracked by news helicopters waving out sunroofs. Strutting gang members parade before news cameras on their way to detention halls, flicking gang signs as they are handcuffed.
The sad fact is that teen-age violence is increasing and money spent by various government agencies is not close to stemming the tide. The future for reducing violent crimes by young people, some barely in their teens (a boy, age 13 convicted as an adult for murder in Detroit) is bleak, at best. The sense of guilt that may have afflicted previous generations of juveniles and “scared them straight” is not in evidence as we have reached the 21st Century. The courts are seldom of help.
Juvenile justice is a never-ending circle of court appearances, a stay in a detention center, release, and another arrest and court appearance. There are not enough counselors to go around to attempt to turn these kids around. Their role models are juvenile criminals who are getting away with, even, murder.
Juvenile Justice today has to be not only blind, and supposedly color-blind, but deaf, as well. Judges have heard every excuse, every plea for mercy and pity. They know it is, for the most part, a game in which they must participate. No wonder there is such increasing burn-out among juvenile court judges. They cannot right wrongs, only punish them. That is what these kids expect. No pity or mercy. That makes them tougher, and harder to convince that society is not AGAINST them.
Is there any way to stop this infernal circle? Is there any way to reach most of these kids? Do they even know right from wrong, and do they care? Is there anything the family can do? “Princeton University political scientist John Dilulio said that inner city neighborhoods are raising too many ‘chaotic, dysfunctional fatherless, Godless and jobless youths where self-respecting young men literally conspire to get away with murder” (Macko 1996 3). There is no satisfying response to this. Even in public schools, there is little respect for learning or for authority. There seems to be no reason to “learn” anything other than not getting caught.
Society really has only two choices: totally turn its back or do something to improve the home life and parental influence. Positive as that sounds, the question is:” who gets this started, who will fund it, and- most important- will the intended audience bother to listen and respond?
Society has to stop playing the blame game. It is not lack of parental guidance alone, not poverty, or frustration with life-style. It is a combination of factors. And. Like it or not, it has become a matter of race: “The percentage of white and black female-headed families was significantly related to white and black violence, although a higher level of family disruption was observed among blacks. In other words, both black and white juvenile violence rates are affected by the same socio-structural factors” (Juvenile Justice Bulletin 2000 3). Still, all we can rely on are statistics and some sociological and psychological “insights”. We need to study the WHY of juvenile delinquency far more and take some action. Is it merely poverty, frustration, lack of a stable home life, peer pressure, poor education, hopelessness and joblessness? Is it a combination of all of the above? It is also, unfortunately, a fact of life that if we are walking home at night, we will be far more afraid if there is a black or Hispanic rather than a white teenager behind us. Is society to blame for that fear?
Bilchik, S. (1998): Administrator for Grants and Funding, Juvenile Crime Prevention Foundation
Brooks, G. (1996): “Let’s Not Gang Up on Our Children” Nation’s Cities Journal, Apr, 1996
Carney, D. (1997): “On Stemming Juvenile Crime” Congressional Quarterly, Apr. 1997
DiJulio, J. J. Jr. (1997): “A Lack of Moral Guidance” Juvenile Crime: Opposing Viewpoints San Diego: Greenhaven Press
Editorial: “Juvenile Crime” Congressional Digest, Aug/Sept., 1996
Garcetti, G. (1997): “More Juveniles Should be Tried as Adults” Juvenile Crime: Opposing Viewpoints San Diego: Greenhaven Press
Unsigned article: “Race, Ethnicity, and Serious and Violent Juvenile Offending” Juvenile Justice Bulletin , June 2000
Krisberg, B. (1996): “For Increased Federal Government Control” Congressional Digest Aug/Sept 1996
Lambert, R. D. (1995): “Reactions to Crime and Violence” American Academy of Social and Political Science
Macko, S. (1996) “Kids With No Hope, No Fear, No Rules, And No Life Expectancy” Emergency News Daily Report, May 18, 1996
Maginnis, R. L. (1997): “Single Parents Cause Juvenile Delinquency” Juvenile Crime: Opposing Viewpoints San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1997
Quist, J. (1997): “NLC Testifies on Juvenile Justice Mandates” Nation’s Cities Journal, May 12, 1997
Webb, M. (1999): “Coping With Street Gangs” The Rosen Publishing Group
Wright, K. & K. (1997) “Single Parent Families May Not Cause Juvenile Crime” (NYU Study & Planned Parenthood study) Juvenile Crime: Opposing Viewpoints, San Diego: Greenhaven Press