Statement Of Problem
In today's society, the problem of juvenile delinquency is running more rampant than ever before. Also, the degrees to which it occurs are far more serious than they were, even ten years ago. The problem used to be over-simplified and chalked up to "kids will be kids", but today's "kids" are contributing to much more serious crimes than they used to. One statistic states that youths under the age of 18 years accounted for 15.4% of arrests for violent crimes and 33.5% of arrests for property crimes in 1986.1 This statistic is more than ten years old, and with the increasing popularity of gang culture and substance abuse amongst young people, it would be safe to assume that these statistics have either increased, or at the very least, remained the same.
With numbers as high as they are, delinquency amongst youths must be seen as a social problem that has to be dealt with soon, before it becomes even more out of control than it is right now. Before we can begin to try and treat this behavior, we must establish a cause for it. As with a physical illness, a cure cannot be obtained until a cause is determined, therefore we must uncover the underlying factors that cause this behaviour, and then work from there to find a suitable "treatment".
Review Of Literature And Development Of Hypothesis
As with all behavioral and psychological issues, the nature vs. nurture debate comes into play when discussing causes of delinquency. Many people feel strongly that one or the other is usually the cause of certain "behavioral problems", but I tend to think that often, it's usually the two theories working together. My hypothesis is that it is a combination of biological factors and learned behaviour that causes delinquency amongst young people, and not simply one or the other.
I feel that children are born with genetically pre-determined personality traits, such as violence, temper, morality & conscience levels, etc., but I don't believe that these traits get the chance to surface without being affected by external environmental factors. I feel that just as alcoholism, intelligence levels, and sense of humor are hereditary, so are violent tendencies, and conscience levels. However, I believe that even if a child is born with these tendencies, they aren't likely to display them unless outside factors (i.e. peer group, family life) influence them. For example, if a child is raised in an abusive household or regularly associates with people who display these behaviors, these factors will trigger the repressed traits to surface, while if the child had been raised in a stabile, nurturing environment, they might not have. On the other hand, I don't believe that simply being raised in a destructive environment will cause somebody to behave immorally; this is where the necessity for the biological aspect comes in. There are thousands of people who are abused as children, or associate with the "bad crowd", yet it does not cause them to behave in the same manner.
Kohlberg's Theory of Cognitive Stages (1969) says that there are five stages in the development of moral reasoning, and that the relationship of this theory to delinquent behaviour lies primarily in the distinction between stages two and three. Stage two is described as children who have a naive awareness of others' needs and define right as those actions that satisfy one's personal needs and sometimes the needs of others, while stage three children define right as those actions that meet the expectations of significant others. In 1987, Gibbs noted that stage two individuals are more likely to commit law violations because their thinking is egocentric and pragmatic, weighing the advantages and disadvantages of their actions. Stage three individuals on the other hand, appreciate the perspectives and feelings of others, and do not want to "disappoint" their friends and family.2 This theory supports my hypothesis that the biologically determined trait, morality, has a significant impact on the tendency for adolescents to become delinquent. Goldstein and Glick concluded that moral reasoning is significant in the understanding and treatment of delinquent behaviour.3 Additional support of the biological theory lies in the fact that the rare XYY chromosomal condition has been correlated with crime, but direct causation had not yet been proven as of 1986.4
The social learning theory is the view that crime is learned in given social contexts through modeling, observation, and then reinforcement (Bandura, 1977; Nietzel, 1979).5 This theory supports my hypothesis that delinquent behaviour is also caused by environmental factors. The youth will observe, and model the behaviour he/she sees his/her parents and friends demonstrating. Young people are highly affected by what their parents say or do; this is how attitudes such as racism and homophobia are passed down generation to generation, despite the efforts of government, media and social groups trying to stop them. Once the youth displays this type of behaviour, it will be reinforced, whether by acceptance and encouragement of a peer group, or by attention the child receives at home. Some children feel ignored at home, and will continue to misbehave, even to receive negative attention, just as long as they are being focused on.
I wrote and circulated a survey to 20 females, and 20 males to find their opinions on juvenile delinquency. I wanted to know what they thought of the "nature/nurture" debate, as well as their thoughts on how contemporary society is handling the problem of adolescent crime. I asked what social factors they thought had the most impact on youth crime, as well as their opinions on the Young Offenders Act as a way of dealing with the problem. I also wanted to know other methods they thought should be employed to help manage and reduce the situation.
One problem with my findings is that none of the people I surveyed are professional psychologists, crime experts or youth counselors. I am not receiving knowledgeable fact, simply the opinions of average people in society. However although these people are not "experts", their opinion is still valuable. Most people in society either know a young offender, or have been the victim of one, and therefore are somewhat knowledgeable about the subject.
After tabulating the results of the survey, I found that none of the respondents thought that delinquency was strictly a result of biological factors. I also found that most people were more likely to say that it was strictly learned factors, while the minority (by a small margin) thought it was a combination of the two. Results are shown in the following table:
CATEGORIES FREQUENCIES PERCENT OF TOTAL
Biological 0 0%
Learned 23 58%
Both 17 42%
TOTAL 40 100%
I also found that there was a difference between males and females when it came to opinions on the nature/nurture issue. 60% of females felt that delinquency is caused by a combination of biological and social factors, while 75% of males felt that it was completely caused by social factors. Everybody asked thought that the family had an impact on forming delinquency in children, while 80% of females, and 85% of males felt that the peer group was a contributing factor. Only 20% of males and 10% of females felt that the media had a direct impact on youth crime.
When it comes to solving the problem, 75% of females, and 60% of males felt that the Young Offenders Act is detrimental to the problem of youth crime. They feel that the age limit is too high (80% f., 70% m.), the consequences are too lenient (100% m&f), and that it does not serve as a very good deterrent. 50% of females and 65% of males feel that offenses should remain on a person's record permanently, as opposed to until the person is 18. Also, 60% of females, and 75% of males feel that if the names of the offenders were released to the press, it would serve as a bigger deterrent not to commit the crime.
There were many other ways in which the respondents felt society needs to deal with juvenile delinquency, such as encouraging stronger family ties, increasing education about the consequences of crime, as well as a greater focus on rehabilitation of young offenders as opposed to simple punishment. One suggestion that I think was really good was to have youth counselors as opposed to probation officers that an offender has to report to on a regular basis.
All a probation officer does is make sure the offender hasn't been skipping on community service hours, but if the child had to report to a counselor, individually or with his/her family, there is a greater chance that the child would not go out and break the law again.
I was surprised that the majority of the respondents to the survey did not agree with my hypothesis that delinquency is a result of both biological and social factors. I found that the authors of the books I used for the report also tended to concentrate more on the social aspect of cause, rather than biological. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the books are relatively outdated, and not enough research had been done at the time.
I feel that my hypothesis is was proven to be correct in this report. The references that I used spoke of both biological and social causes for delinquent behaviour, although the focus was primarily on the social aspect. As I mentioned previously, I feel that at the time the books were written, there had not been enough scientific research done to prove biological factors were a major contributing factor to the issue of youth crime.
I set out to find whether juvenile delinquency is caused by biological factors, social factors, or a combination of the two. I hypothesized that it was not solely the effect of one side or the other, that it was, in fact, a combination, and I proved the statement to be true. Although most focus tends to be placed on the social aspect, there is research documenting biological impact on morality and crime. I also believe that in the future, there will be research that proves that a large amount of youth crime, and crime in general is caused by biological traits that are triggered by undesirable social conditions, proving that without one, or the other, the tendency for immoral behaviour would not exist.
1. Henggeler, Scott W. (1989). Delinquency In Adolescence. Newbury
Park, CA: SAGE Publications, Incorporated.
2. Stumphauzer, PhD, Jerome S. Paper Hard Disk
Sociology Survey Hard Disk
Mississippi Burning Har
(1986). Helping Delinquents Change.
Binghamton, NY: The Haworth Press, Incorporated.
3. Wormser, Richard. (1994). Juveniles In Trouble. New York, NY:
Simon & Schuster.