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What is Juvenile Delinquency?

Updated on December 3, 2016

Juvenile delinquency is lawbreaking by children or adolescents. Delinquency includes behavior that would be considered criminal if committed by adults, such as setting a fire or stealing a car. It also includes acts that are not necessarily criminal in adults, such as truancy and running away from home. Today the legal attitude toward the juvenile lawbreaker is that a child too young to be able properly to distinguish between right and wrong or fully to appreciate the nature of his acts ought not to be criminally responsible for what he does or fails to do. The Canadian Juvenile Delinquents Act of 1929, for example, states that "every juvenile delinquent shall be treated, not as a criminal, but as a misdirected and misguided child, and one needing aid, encouragement, help and assistance."

In the United States, laws defining delinquency and setting age limits for the juvenile delinquent vary from state to state. The maximum age ranges from 14 to 21 years, but in most states it is set at 18. In all states, juvenile offenders are tried in juvenile courts or family courts, which are separate from regular criminal courts.

Juvenile delinquents account for a great number of the illegal acts committed in the United States, especially those that involve taking another's belongings. During the 1960s more than 60 percent of all persons arrested for auto theft and about 50 percent of those arrested for thefts and burglary were under 18 years of age. Delinquency is rising among girls, although many more boys than girls come before juvenile courts. Many juvenile delinquents break the law repeatedly. Delinquents come from both well-to-do families and poor families, and almost as many arrests are made in rural communities as in cities and their suburbs.

Definition of Juvenile Delinquency

Any discussion of juvenile delinquency raises two fundamental questions: Who are the juveniles? and What constitutes delinquency? In answer to the first question, the most common criterion employed is chronological age. The vast majority of the laws dealing with juvenile delinquency throughout the world provide an age limit beyond which special procedures and measures meant for juveniles are inapplicable. This age limit varies not only from one country to another, but also from state to state within a country as in the case of the United States. In Europe, the variations range from 16 years in Belgium to 21 years in Sweden. The majority of European countries, however, fix the age limit at 18 years. Jurisdictions in the United States have fixed the limit with considerable variation, ranging from 16 years in states like New York and Connecticut to 21 years in such states as California and Arkansas. Here again the majority of states have fixed it at 18 years. In Latin America, the range is from 14 years in Haiti to 20 years in Chile, with the majority of the republics fixing it at 18 years. The limit in Asia ranges from 15 years in some countries like Syria and Lebanon and most of the Indian states to 20 years in Japan.

In addition to the upper age limit, most laws employ a lower age limit below which criminal responsibility, in accordance with common law tradition, cannot be attributed to juveniles. The majority of countries throughout the world accept either seven or eight years as the lower age limit, often in conjunction with the rebuttable presumption concerning discernment, although there are some countries where it is higher, apparently the highest being found in Finland where the lower age limit is 16 years.

The second question as to what constitutes delinquency is more difficult to answer. The word delinquency is derived from the Latin delinquere meaning "neglect," and it may be interpreted in broad terms as neglect on the part of juveniles to conform to the accepted standards of behavior in a given society. There is general agreement, among the vast majority of the countries of the world, that an antisocial act which in their respective laws is defined as a criminal offense constitutes delinquency when committed by a juvenile. Beyond this, however, various meanings are attributed to the term. In the United States, for example, there are over 30 forms of behavior which are regarded as delinquency. They include incorrigibility, addiction to drugs, disorderliness, vagrancy, and sexual irregularities, to mention just a few. What is delinquent behavior in one state may not be so in another. According to English common law a boy under the age of 14 years is presumed to be incapable of having sexual intercourse and he cannot, therefore, be found guilty of a sex offense in England. In the United States he may be considered a delinquent. The trend in the mid-20th century is toward the broadening of the concept of delinquency with the consequence that it cannot be defined with any precision. The apparent increase in juvenile delinquency is due partly to the recognition of a greater number of behavior forms as delinquent. This is true not only for the highly industrialized and more developed countries but also for the so-called less developed countries where detribalization and shift of population to urban areas have brought juveniles face to face with impersonal law, which regards as delinquent certain forms of behavior which were customarily considered acceptable conduct in the juvenile's previous environment.

Causes of Juvenile Delinquency

There is no single cause of juvenile delinquency. In general, however, delinquency stems from the tensions and emotional stresses between young people and the adult world. Usually these tensions start in the family. Many delinquents come from broken homes or from homes where the adults do not show sufficient love for each other or for their children. Young people who are too harshly disciplined and whose rights and responsibilities as part of the family are not respected may dissociate themselves from adults, lose respect for adult society, and take aggressive action against society. A lack of discipline may also lead to delinquent behavior. Young people who do not learn moral conduct in their homes can fail to develop a firm sense of right and wrong and can enter easily into delinquent conduct.

Social and economic conditions outside the family may also contribute to juvenile delinquency. The difficulty of living in poverty in slums or blighted areas may breed contempt for oneself and for others, A girl may turn to shoplifting to get cosmetics or jewelry or a boy may steal a car to impress his girl. The older youth who has dropped out of school is especially prone to delinquency. The dropout is idle because his skills are not sufficient to get a job, and in order to get money he may turn to burglary or mugging. Discrimination against minority groups may also encourage delinquency. Youths who belong to minorities may strike back in resentment against society.

Treatment of Delinquents

The treatment given to the juvenile delinquent depends on his offense and on the factors that made him delinquent. In cases where the offense is minor, the police may talk with the youth's parents and release him with a warning, or they may refer him or his family to some agency such as a department of welfare for assistance. When the offense or its causes are serious, the youth may be referred to the juvenile court or family court. The court may send the delinquent home with a warning and assign a probation officer to help him with job or family problems. In cases where the youth's home environment is bad, the court may place him in a foster home. If he seems emotionally disturbed, the court may arrange for psychiatric treatment. As a last resort, the court may commit the delinquent to an institution where he can learn a trade while living under constant supervision.

One of the most frequent measures of treatment applied by juvenile courts is probation. A juvenile delinquent is placed under the supervision of a probation officer whose duties are to befriend and assist him with a view to his rehabilitation. Probation is essentially social case work because it is the task of the probation officer to find regular employment for his charge and assist in his family problems whenever necessary. Trained probation personnel is a prerequisite for the success of this measure. In most countries where probation is used for juveniles, the tendency is to employ trained personnel on a full-time salaried basis. In England, for example, the Home Office offers a training course for probation officers. In the State of Victoria in Australia, on the other hand, probation officers are volunteers selected from all walks of life.

In some European countries such as France and Belgium, a measure analogous to probation known as "supervised freedom" is practiced. The tendency in these countries is to employ full-time personnel although in the past volunteers have played a more important role.

Other measures of treatment in freedom include foster-home placement for those juveniles who have no homes or whose homes are inadequate. In spite of the emphasis on rehabilitation in the treatment of juvenile delinquents, many countries still employ measures such as corporal punishment, the rehabilitative value of which is doubtful.

Next to probation, juveniles are most often sent to institutions for rehabilitation. The modern juvenile institution is a greatly improved version of the early reformatory school, but it is a far cry from the ideal establishment which sends back to the community a rehabilitated juvenile whose adjustment to normal living conditions is easy and smooth. Juvenile institutions offer agricultural or industrial training to juveniles and usually provide opportunities for the development of social responsibility in their inmates. There is a tendency to have the cottage type of establishment in preference to the congregate type of institution so that juveniles may be classified according to different criteria, and individualized treatment given. It has also been realized that individualized treatment does not consist in treating a juvenile apart from other human beings but in relation to them. In the United States, the State of New Jersey has led the way in experimenting with group therapy methods in the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders.

In view of the fact that the institutional setting offers an artificial atmosphere which in many instances is unrelated to actual conditions prevailing in the outside community, aftercare is a very important element in the treatment process. Comparatively speaking, aftercare services throughout the world are underdeveloped. In this connection, England and some states of India, such as Bombay and Madras, have experimented with aftercare hostels where juveniles are placed prior to their final release. Such hostels offer a less abrupt adjustment for juveniles in returning to their communities. Otherwise, aftercare usually means supervision by a parole officer. As in probation, the importance of having well-qualified supervisory personnel in this respect cannot be overemphasized.

Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency

In the United States, churches, civic associations, settlement houses, and groups such as the YMCA and YMHA work to teach young people how to use their leisure time constructively. Such organizations usually provide recreational facilities and counseling. Several cities in the United States and Canada have police-sponsored boys' clubs and athletic associations, such as the Police Athletic League (PAL) in New York City. City and county welfare departments work with youths and their families, and urban renewal projects try to eliminate slums and create decent living conditions. Most states allot money to assist such projects.

The President's Committee on Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime, created in 1961, provides federal funds to local public and private agencies for programs to prevent and combat delinquency. Other programs, such as the Youth Corps and the Youth Conservation Corps, were set up in 1964 under the Office of Economic Opportunity to help youths stay in school or get vocational training and job placement. Efforts are also being made to cope with the problem of school dropouts. The U.S. Department of Labor has recommended that the states make school attendance compulsory up to the age of 18 and provide two years of free schooling above the high school level. It is hoped that the additional education will better fit youths for employment.

Many nations have developed youth corps camps to promote skills and good character among youths from about 15 to 20 years of age. The United Nations Economic and Social Council (UNESCO) provides expert assistance in forming and administering youth corps through a special Coordinating Committee for the International Voluntary Work Camps.


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    • profile image

      Roshan kumar jha,ksl 

      6 years ago

      In the context of Nepal, Children’s Act 2048, has defined children in section 2(a). According to it, children are those who are under 16 and minimum age is 10. From the historical perspective, the legal system was mainly based on religion. The moral and ethical rules founded on ‘percepts of Hindu religions’ thus played roles of guiding principles of justice. The ‘Muluki Ain, 1910 (1853)’, the national code of Nepal, was immensely influenced by the “Hindu value system” of strict child discipline, where a child was rendered to face liability for his immediate correction, irrespective of his/her age. The Muluki Ain was immensely influenced by this ‘value system’, and consequently the ‘criminal responsibility at lower age’ was adopted as an out come of the same.

      The legal system stared to change to adversarial system from 1950s. With this development, many aspects of the Nepalese justice system became subjected to critical review. The concept of ‘Juvenile Justice’ came along with this change. In a modern and developed concept of justice, the children in conflict with laws are treated different from adults throughout the process. The rationale for this special treatment lie in the fundamental principle of criminal law that a person can be found fully or partly criminally liable only if he/she can fully understand that what s/he is doing if forbidden by law. Children are physically and mentally immature that’s why special treatment is necessary to juvenile offenders and this system is known as Juvenile Justice System.


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