There are also theories on protective factors such as social control theory, which suggests that, absent social control force coming from the individual’s bonds to community members (family, peers, school), youth will commit delinquent behavior naturally. And social capital theory argues “that the community can be strengthened by investing more in social networks, communication, and an exchange of resources” (Noyori-Corbett & Moon, 2010, p. 254). A combination and an apposite use of these theories work best in explaining the causes of juvenile delinquency.
In developing strategies for preventing and correcting delinquent behavior among the youth, it is also important to know what strategies do not work and thus should be avoided. For example, zero tolerance policies implemented in schools and by the justice system remind a martial law, which is likely to be counterproductive in dealing with adolescents. Punishment — that is, exacting penalty for crimes committed against others — alone will not work with adolescents either. Some serious juvenile offenders deserve punishment as a deterring measure but it should be coupled with rehabilitation. But even in dealing with severe juvenile offenders, they should not be placed in adult correctional institutions, although very often adolescents in the United States are sentenced in adult criminal courts (Kurlychek & Johnson, 2010; Mlyniec, 2010). Similar harsh methods such as the scared straight programs are counterproductive. The scared straight program was developed in the 1970s which brought male and female juveniles “into the prison and subjected them to shock therapy consisting of threats, intimidation, emotional shock, loud and angry bullying, and persuasion. The idea was to literally scare them away from delinquency, to scare them straight” (Howell, 2009, p. 260).
Juvenile delinquency prevention should be as sophisticated and comprehensive as possible. Some strategies may work within a specific social context but may not be as effective in other social settings. Cross-cultural studies in juvenile justice may be helpful here. For example, according to Lelekov and Kosheleva (2008), the general measures of prevention in Russia are providing jobs for the youth and their parents, raising living standards, offering protection for troubled families, and developing extracurricular activities such as sports clubs (free of charge). It is clear that these measures reflect the situation and recent political turmoil as well as low standards of living in Russia. The measures proposed by Lelekov and Kosheleva are most fitting in the Russian context, but even there Lelekov and Kosheleva developed regional and individual prevention methods to better address specific problems. Likewise, China’s Delinquency Prevention Law of 1999 was a reflection of a traditional Chinese philosophy and thinking. The effectiveness of the law is still in question but the law also seems to be more fitting to the Chinese society (Lening & Jianhong, 2007). Any strategies in the United States should be developed with the American context in mind.
There are nonetheless general measures which may be adopted presently in the United States. As Noyori-Corbett and Moon (2010) suggest, delinquency prevention strategies should be multi-faceted, targeting several delinquent behaviors simultaneously since they are often interrelated. Noyori-Corbett and Moon found relations among tobacco smoking, substance abuse (including alcohol), and violent behavior. They argue: “programs attempting to slower delinquency behavior among adolescents need to have multifaceted and psychosocial assessments to see the eco-systems at work around them. Looking only at certain dimensions of the world of juvenile delinquency any practitioner might easily fall into any fallacy such as selective observation and, as a result, create problems in empirical base practice” (p. 263). Many practitioners working for the juvenile justice system and in correctional institutions also support such a comprehensive approach in addressing the problem (Mears, Shollenberger, Willison, Owens, & Butts, 2010).
As complicated the juvenile delinquency problem seems to be today, it is likely that the challenges awaiting us in the next several decades are going to be even greater. As a policy, it is important that grassroots community participation in preventing juvenile delinquency is in place. The juvenile justice system should also uphold the rights and dignity of adolescents. Research shows that denying adolescents’ constitutional rights in the courts, for example, makes rehabilitation process much harder, while upholding their rights may convince them that the laws are functioning and the system of justice is in place (Henning, 2010). Ethical considerations should also be integrated into the system. Cooperation and collaboration among all the stakeholders in juvenile justice is very important. There should be more emphasis on meeting young people’s basic needs.
Considering the social and demographic changes that will take place in the next several decades, however, it is likely that the American juvenile justice system will place greater emphasis on crime control model. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of juveniles will dramatically increase in the next decades. “Many members of this increased population of juveniles will come from impoverished homes headed by single mothers,” Bartollas and Miller (2008) explain. “With this population of poor juveniles, the rate of juvenile violence, including homicide, may again grow, as it did in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The widespread feeling today that there are more troubled teenagers than in the past will be even more pronounced in the next twenty years” (p. 420). So, while it would be best for the United States to adopt a balanced and humanitarian juvenile justice system, the American public, trying to mitigate the aftereffects of socio-demographic changes, will pressure the justice administrators to employ harsher measures in preventing juvenile delinquency in the decades to come.
Juvenile delinquency is a complicated problem. There are different forms of delinquent behavior and no single approach can address all of them. A sophisticated, multi-faceted approach, combining different theoretical and practical strategies can help us better address the problem of adolescent delinquency. Cross-cultural approach to this problem is also important, as causes and factors influencing delinquency may be culturally-based or subject to a specific social setting. And while adopting these strategies would be helpful in tackling the problem of delinquency in the United States, socio-demographic changes in the coming decades will motivate the American public to pursue harsher measures in tackling juvenile delinquency.
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Noyori-Corbett, C., & Moon, S.S. (2010) Multifaceted Reality of Juvenile Delinquency: An Empirical Analysis of…