Juvenile delinquency is one of the most interesting, yet complex, phenomena in the United States criminal justice system. Sociologists have devoted the most attention to the issue of criminality, and many of them have steered their attention to basic questions about the nature of youth crime. Who commits delinquent acts? Are trends of juvenile delinquency increasing or decreasing? What can society do to prevent juvenile delinquency? Consequently, juveniles who violate the law receive considerable attention from law enforcement officers, social service agencies, behavioral scientists, and criminologists.

It is a tragedy that many American children grow up in dysfunctional families headed by substance abusing parents, live in deteriorated neighborhoods, have access to dangerous weapons, are lured by criminal gangs, and are constantly exposed to extremes of poverty and violence. Some suffer from psychological and emotional problems. Why does the United States, considered the “wealthiest” country on earth and the world leader in many social categories, come up short in areas of child welfare? This latest generation of adolescents is lost in a world of materialism. By age eighteen, they have spent more time in front of a cell phone and television than in a classroom; each year they may see hundreds of murders, rapes, and violent assaults through various media platforms. What effects do these exposures to poverty and violence have on child development?

Why do some kids continually get in trouble with the law, escalate the seriousness of their offenses, and become adult criminals? Why do others desist from delinquent activities? The answers to these questions are rooted deep in the theories of juvenile delinquency. However, by exploring the environmental influences of family and school on adolescents, the nature and extent of juvenile delinquency can better be explained.

Family Influence
The family is the key social institution that provides the nurturing socialization of young children (Glueck, 1967). The assumed relationship between delinquency and family life is critical today because the traditional American family is rapidly changing. It has become a thing of the past. Today, it seems much more of child-rearing is delegated to nannies, baby-sitters, and day care providers. Despite these changes, many families are able to adapt and continue functioning as healthy and caring units. But some families crumble under the chaotic stress, severely damaging the present and future of their children.

It is obvious that the family cannot totally control outside influences upon its members, but it can have a significant impact on shaping the extent to which children are exposed to other major agents of socialization. The connection seems self-evident because a child is first socialized at home and from the beginning learns values, beliefs, and behaviors from parents and other family members. Any disjunction in an orderly family structure could have a significant, negative impact on a child’s life. Despite good intentions, it is simply more difficult for one parent to provide the same degree of control, discipline, and support as two. Therefore, a broken home can be a strong determinant of a child’s law-violating behavior.

The large number of married women working outside the home is a recent phenomenon in the last forty years, which has undoubtedly impacted the American family. One of the major problems faced by working mothers is finding adequate child care at affordable costs. This has created “latchkey children”, which describes school-aged children who return home after school to an empty house. These children are much more likely to get into trouble than children who return home to the supervision of a parent or guardian.

School Influence
Since so much of children’s time is spent in school, it seems logical that some relationship exists between delinquent behavior and what is happening, or not happening, in classrooms throughout the country. Numerous studies have confirmed that delinquency is related to academic achievement, and experts have concluded that many of the underlying problems of delinquency are intimately connected with the nature and quality of children’s experiences at school (Smithmyer, Hubbard, & Simmons, 2000).

Schools are a basic channel through which the community and adult influences enter into the lives of adolescents. The general path towards occupational prestige is education, and when juveniles are deprived of this avenue of success through poor academic performance, there is a greater likelihood of deviant behavior. Students who show signs of hyperactivity and aggression tend to deliberately disobey authority figures, and thus, are more likely to be labeled as “bad students”, which can have a lasting impact on a student’s entire educational career. “According to the Labeling Approach, this negative label has impact upon the juvenile’s self-concept and very well may influence future behavior which culminates in the self-fulfilling prophecy” (Siegel, 2000). In other words, students who are labeled early in their educational career may engage in types of behavior which are expected to accompany those labels.

Failing grades, truancy, and dropping out are only some of the responses available to students who do not succeed in the school system. Students who cannot cope with the unsuccessful school experience feel they essentially have two options: drop out, or go to school and cause trouble. Ironically, school attendance laws limit those options to the latter. This feeling of frustration is usually vented as aggressive behavior towards teachers and peers alike. So, the very kids who should not be in the school environment are forced to attend because of compulsory education laws.

Because of the school’s significant role in the socialization of juveniles, a large part of the responsibility for preventing delinquency seems to fall upon the school system. There are serious problems associated with stereotyping, labeling, tracking, and programming failure into some students. Education officials need to institute more programs that will make schools more effective instruments of delinquency prevention. First and foremost, schools must take a proactive approach to improving students’ psychological assets and self-image, giving them the resources to succeed and resist antisocial behavior. Schools should also focus on the continued cognitive development of students by increasing students’ awareness about the dangers of violent behavior, substance abuse, and delinquency in general. There must also be counseling services available to help students who have already manifested behavioral problems.

It is important to realize that the school system did not create juvenile delinquency. Thus, implementing these types of educational programs does not guarantee a solution. However, schools can either aggravate or reduce the problem according to the ways they dispense rewards and punishments.

Conclusion
It is clear that the school system and the family unit are primary agents of socialization for today’s children. In these realms children learn the values, attitudes, and processes that will guide their actions from adolescence into adulthood, and throughout the rest of their lives. Knowing the importance of their roles in the lives of children places great responsibility on families and schools throughout the country. Since there is such a significant correlation between these two social units and delinquency, both units must be more proactive to prevent aggressive, antisocial behavior from escalating into criminal behavior. If today’s adolescents are going to become tomorrow’s leaders, then society must instill in them the upstanding values of character which will help them succeed, making a smooth transition to adulthood.

 

References

Glueck, Sheldon. (1967). Family Environment and Delinquency. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Siegel, Larry J. (2000). Juvenile Delinquency: Theory, Practice, and Law. Canada: Wadsworth Thomas Learning.

Smithmyer, C. M., Hubbard, J.A., & Simmons, R. F. (2000). Proactive and reactive aggression in delinquent adolescents: Relations to aggression outcome expectancies. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 29, 86-93.