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Juvenile Delinquency and Society

Throughout time, crime has played in an important part in the function of society. We see crime in the news everyday, in our communities, in our schools, and in some cases, even in our immediate families. Which reaches out and takes a stranglehold on the human-interest angle of the general public’s mind, and makes us become enveloped in the thought processes of the modern criminal. Along these lines, the fascination with delinquent behavior and the mind of the delinquent has prompted the development of numerous theories, and the continuous, yet rigorous, study of youth behavior. But only recently has the concept of juvenile delinquency become an issue in the way crime among youth is viewed. Our society tends to hold children in special regards in most cases, and the implementation of the juvenile court system led to the development of specific theories such as neutralization, labeling, and social control theories, by people which had a first-hand interest in these juvenile delinquency cases. These theories help investigators, parents, family, peers, and the community, to better understand why our children do what they do. For years, factors such as gender, race, age, and social class, have been the dominant force in research studies to explain the juvenile delinquent and their actions (Hewitt and Regoli, 2000). The culture that exists today is different than the American culture twenty years ago, and in twenty years from now, American culture will have yet again, undergone a similar reconstruction. Trends in our daily trials and tribulations, affect how a youth will choose to live his or her own life, whether or not they choose what is right or wrong, or stray from the path of being a model citizen. These factors and how they interact with the relation of the theories of neutralization, labeling, and social control, is crucial to our situation, with fifteen year old Matt, who is of lower class status, and has seen himself involved in the theft of an automobile. To further evaluate this crime, I’ll begin to apply these mentioned theories to explain this specific incident.

In our example of the neutralization theory in regard to this crime, Matt has stolen a car, and when it comes time for him to “pay the piper”, or face the effects of his criminal act, more than likely, he will use some sort of neutralization technique to justify his actions. The five neutralization techniques are 1) denial or responsibility, 2) denial of injury, 3) denial of victim, 4) Condemnations of condemners, and 5) appeal to a higher loyalty (Hewitt and Regoli, 2000). As a delinquent youth, Matt comes from a lower class family, therefore, he could state that he stole the car because he needed it more than the owner. He could also state that his crime was committed just for fun. By doing this, Matt is using a very common aspect of this theory otherwise known as, a technique of neutralization (Hewitt and Regoli, 2000). Matt could very well assert that since he is a juvenile he is not going to held responsible for his actions, that the act may be ignored in the American justice system, though he is forgetting about the juvenile court system. The next technique he could use would involve the denial or injury, although it is still deemed a criminal act, no one was hurt in the actual crime. The delinquent neutralizes the crime by using such techniques as an explanation that can allow for exceptions to be made (Shields and Whitehall, 1994). To apply the fourth neutralization technique to this crime, Matt could possibly blame his parents or friends for his behavior. By placing the blame or cause for the crime on someone else, Matt is able to compare his behavior to that of the person that is reprimanding him, along with whatever positive or negative influence they may have. In further defense of his criminal act, Matt is also susceptible to the fifth neutralization technique, which would allow him to make his act seem somewhat appropriate by stating, for example, that his family needed the car to take a sick family member to the hospital. Any one thing that Matt could use to justify this crime is linked to the fact that he will try to minimize his own moral disapproval of what he did (Dodder and Mitchell, 1990). The techniques used in the neutralization theory, are very well thought out attempts that offenders use to lower the guilt they feel that is linked to the crime, which in turn neutralizes their status as an offender (Dodder and Eliason, 2000).

An additional theory to explain Matt’s crime is the labeling theory. As a child is growing up, they are subjected to the views of the adults that “govern” their lives (Hewitt and Regoli, 2000). This in turn, allows the youth to mentally become what they are told, which has a built-in tendency to provide for delinquent acts to be committed in the future. For example, one such example of labeling relates to appearance, when a child is told they are physically unattractive, they begin to believe this, and self-confidence levels can plummet (Best and Heckert, 2000). Since Matt was stereotyped as a child, told that he would “never amount to anything”, that “his family was white trash”, that “his life was a waste”, he began to believe this. Therefore, his crime was simply a product of being placed into a social category for all of his life. By stealing the car, Matt is dealing with an internal attempt to break free of this mold he has been cast in, yet he has the stigma attached to his persona. He has been told he is a delinquent, therefore, he commits delinquent acts. Parent’s social class have a great effect on this as well. By being from a lower class family, Matt could have to live every day having his needs thrown in his face by his parents, that have to work themselves very hard to provide basic things. This stress could possibly manifest itself in the labeling of Matt (Hewitt and Regoli, 2000). Many juvenile delinquents hold shame in their labels, and have a greater association with the label with which they are identified (Hayes, 2000). One might assume that indirect labeling of a child may lead to the transformation of their self-image and the downward spiral of self-esteem (Liu, 2000). In actuality, Matt could be a very bright, outgoing, studious, hard-working child, but the negative labels he carries could give him the added confidence or incentive to turn to a delinquent route.

Furthermore, we can use the strain theory to explain Matt’s crime. The basic concept of the strain theory holds the idea that conformity to what our society holds to be “conventional” is what produces crime as well as, the question as to whether or not the end result is “worth it” (Hewitt and Regoli, 2000). Coming from a lower class family, Matt could have two jobs, one of which he relies on to help pay the bills of his family, and the other in which he relies on the money to be set aside for the future, for perhaps a college education, so someday, he may purchase a car of his own, and be self-sufficient. The way this applies to Matt, happens when he has the idea of owning a car implanted in his mind. Then, his life begins to revolve acquiring whatever means are necessary to have this goal come within his reach. All the while, Matt can be pursuing legitimate means to gain the capital necessary for a fully legal purchase, and the introduction of negative stimuli take over his motives, and thus, begins the strain, which in turn leads to the delinquent theft of an automobile (Mazerolle and Paternoster, 1994). One such example of negative stimuli could be, perhaps, Matt is fired or loses one of his jobs due to a layoff or cutbacks. This simple negative setback, is enough to prompt a delinquent act in some instances. In a way, it’s almost a rebellion to the stress of these negative factors. The value that an adolescent places on a goal such as owning or purchasing their first automobile is an impressionable one, and depending on the mental state, and environment of the juvenile in question, Matt, could very easily be swayed to the delinquent side. Matt could possibly be having problems in school, family trouble, delinquent peers, or a problem with committing to all he initially decided upon to be able to purchase an automobile, all in turn, working against Matt and acting as a barrier to achieving his ultimate goal through traditional or standard means. Also being an adolescent male, which is very easily influenced at age fifteen, studies have found that, males have a different emotional response to crime than a female would, that males are more likely to respond to strain with crime, and that generally, a male is susceptible to more stresses than a female would be, which is yet another factor to consider in this situation (Agnew and Broidy, 1997). In relation to the introduction of negative stimuli into Matt’s agenda, another factor could be the actual loss of positive stimuli. If there is an authority figure that is monitoring his progress, giving him direction and possibly providing him some sort of incentive, and suddenly they slack off, or back down, Matt has greater susceptibility to turning down the path of delinquency. Other factors that play into Matt’s delinquency are his social support structure (Agnew, 99). Similar to the idea that what or who was providing his positive stimuli, his community and environment are important factors in his decision. Being that his family is of lower class, Matt is automatically set up to experience strain due to his social environment, and will be exposed to various adverse conditions, despite his ongoing battle to achieve his goals the legitimate or conventional way.

Throughout the course of using these theories to explain Matt’s crime, a common link is found in each of these theories. The theorists, researchers, and authorities are all interested in finding out “what went wrong” to decipher the basis of the crime, and why it happened. The concept of juvenile delinquency is still being researched and defined further, and as well, so is the juvenile justice system. With the development of endless theories, delinquency continues to happen on a daily basis, and researchers continually see “good boys and girls gone bad”. And as students, we can ponder the concepts presented by theorists, and wonder how they can explain or at least help society understand, but what juvenile delinquency actually is, and how to prevent it or lessen it, will be researched, discussed, and debated for years to come, so that society can work more efficiently to help youths such as Matt make the right decision when he is faced with delinquency.



Agew, Robert. 1999. “A General Strain Theory of Community Differences in Crime Rates.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 36:123.

Agnew, Robert., Broidy, Lisa. 1997. “Gender and Crime: A general strain theory perspective.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 34:275.

Best, Amy., Heckert, Druann. 1997. “Ugly duckling to swan: Labeling theory and the stigmatization of red hair.” Symbolic Interaction 20:365.

Dodder, R.A., Eliason, Stephen. 2000. “Neutralization Among Deer Poachers.” Journal of Social Psychology 140:536.

Dodder, R.A., Mitchell, J. 1990. “Neutralization and Delinquency: A comparison by sex and ethnicity.” Adolescence 25:487.

Hayes, Terrell A. 2000. “Stigmatizing Indebtedness: Implications for Labeling Theory.” Symbolic Interaction 23:29.

Hewitt, John D., Regoli, Robert M. 2000. Delinquency and Society. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

Mazerolle, Paul., Paternoster, Raymond. 1994. “General strain theory and delinquency: A replication and extension.” Journal of Crime and Research in Delinquency 31:235.

Shields, Ian., Whitehall, Georga C. 1994. “Neutralization and Delinquency among teenagers.” Criminal Justice and Behavior 21:223.

Xiaoru, Liu. 2000. “The conditional effect of peer groups on the relationship between parental labeling and youth delinquency.” Sociological Perspectives 43:499.

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