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Juvenile delinquency: Extent, Problem, Reasons and Corrective Programs

Updated on September 4, 2014

The recent media reports have overwhelming content on youth crime. A number of studies have also gone on to report upon the extent and nature of those crimes. The government and the reform agencies including the juvenile justice system have responded accordingly. In this essay we propose to discuss dimensions, experiences and causes of the problems, as well as the policy responses to them.

Extent of the Problem

According to Nacro youth crime fact sheet, “Offending by young people is relatively common. Some 33 % of males aged 15-16 years in self report studies, for example, admit committing at least one offence within the past 12 months. At the same time, public perceptions tend to overstate the extent of crime which is attributable to young people: 28% believe that young people are responsible for more than half of all offences; and a further 55% consider that responsibility for crime is shared equally by adults and young people. In fact during 1999, 76% of detected crime was committed by persons over the age of 18. Offenders over 21 years were responsible were responsible for over 60% of detected offending”

According to a survey carried out by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, published in 2002, based on the sample size of 14000 exposed some of the unknown facts on youth crime in the U.K. According to the survey, almost half of Britain’s secondary school children admitted breaking the law at some time; a third of 14-15 year olds admitted committing criminal damage and a quarter admitted shoplifting in the past year; one in five 15-16 year old boys admitted to attacking some one with the intention to cause serious harm; one in 10 boys in the age group 11-12 said they had carried a knife or other weapon in the past year and 8 percent admitted to having attacked someone with an intention to cause serious harm. One in 10 boys aged 15 and 16 had broken into a building to steal during the previous year including 4 percent who said they had done so three or four times; a quarter of 13 to 14 year olds indulged in binge drinking, consuming five or more alcoholic drinks in one session; serious drug problems were also identified.

According to the Youth Lifestyle Survey (YLS) carried among 4848 respondents (aged between 12 and 30 yrs.) between October 1998 and January 1999 several youth offences were reported. Almost half of 12-30 year olds admitted committing at least on of the 27 offences at some stage of their lives (57% men and 37% women). The other reported findings were as follows:

- almost a fifth (19%) of 12 to 30 year olds admitted one or more offence in the last 12 months. Women were less likely to have offended (11%) as compared to men (26%).

- At the time of the reported offence, about half (48% of men and 59% of women) had committed only one or two offences.

- Among all offences in 12 to 30 year olds, those in the age 14-21 committed most while those in the youngest (12 to 13) and oldest (26 to 30) age groups committed the least.

- The offending began at an average age of 13 ½ for boys and 14 for girls

- The rates of offending are highest among men aged 18 – the peak age of offending; among women the peak age of offending is 14.

- At the ages 12 and 13 there is little difference in boys and girls in offending including drug use and drinking. The difference becomes marked after the age of 14, and over the age of 17, male offenders outnumber the women by a ratio of about 3:1.

A number of reports have unanimously pointed out a perceptible decrease in youth crimes over the last 15 years. For instance the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, between 1983 and 1993 there was a drop of 42% among the 10 to 13 year old boys who were found guilty or cautioned for more serious more serious “indictable” offences. The corresponding decline among 14-17 year old boys was 15%. However, it was also pointed out at the same time that the perceptible decrease was illusory, as the police-recorded crime statistics and the national surveys of the victims of crime together agree that within the same period there has been a dramatic increase in offences like burglary and vehicle thefts, the types of offences most often committed by young people. The other probable reasons explaining the discrepancy could be a growing reluctance to take juveniles to court and an increasing tendency on the part of police to issue unrecorded warnings rather than formal cautions.

Factors Responsible for Criminal Behavior

We might be interested in knowing the factors that might possibly dispose young people toward criminal behavior. We should also like to be informed on the risk factors associated to crime. According to Joseph Rawntree Foundation, young offenders tend to be versatile and rarely specialize in specific crime or violence. Longitudinal research has identified features in the childhood and adult lives of violent offenders and non-violent persistent offenders that are very similar, suggesting that violent offenders are essentially frequent offenders. Studies have also found that young offenders are versatile in committing other types of antisocial behavior, including heavy drinking, drug-taking, dangerous driving and promiscuous sex. Delinquency is, therefore, only one element in a much larger syndrome of antisocial behavior.

A large number of available researches on backgrounds, circumstances, and attitudes of future offenders have identified factors that point to an increased risk of future criminal behavior among children. Some of them as pointed out by the Home Office are troubled home life; poor attainment at school, truancy and school exclusion; drug or alcohol misuse and mental illness; deprivation such as poor housing and homelessness; peer group pressure.

More or less similar set of reasons have been identified by the studies on criminal behavior. Ian Colquhoun identifies major causes of youth crime as follows:

Low income and poor housing; Living in deteriorating inner city areas; A high degree of impulsiveness and hyperactivity; Low intelligence and low attainment; Poor prenatal discipline and harsh erratic discipline; Parental conflict and broken families.

The global report on human settlement points out that a wealth of international data suggests that crime and violence are strongly associated with the growth and proportions of youthful populations, and especially young males. Youth crimes and violence rates are also associated with such environmental factors as level of policing, conviction and imprisonment rates, drug cultures and a host of situational elements that condition people. Across countries, small arms survey and WHO data report that males aged 15-29 account for about half of all firearm related homicides. However, apart from the factors internal to the offenders, the planning and policy measures are significant determinants of crime. “From a planning and public policy standpoint, then, where crimes occur and how places are designed and managed are at least as important as who the perpetrators are…because crime and violence tends to reoccur in relatively limited number of places in cities…generally well known to citizens and police, and occurrences are therefore, reasonably predictable”

Attitude of Media and Government toward Youth Crime

Youth crime in England and Wales is quite a popular but controversial topic in media as the headline grabbing terms like “yob” and “ASBO” appear with regular frequency. A child in England and Wales is anyone under the age of 18 as defined by law, while a young offender is anyone convicted of an offence between the age of 10 and 20. Most of the reported crime in media relating to young offenders involves “anti-social behavior, violence, and sometimes even just kids hanging out in large groups on the street.” (Youth Crime Available at: It is abundantly clear than not all offences committed by young offenders are of very serious nature even as the media has a tendency to sensationalize offences committed by them. According to data compiled by Crimeinfo it appears that a majority of crimes committed by young men and women are not of a very serious nature: “Theft, handling stolen goods, burglary, fraud or forgery and criminal damage make up more than 68% of youth crime; Almost eight in ten of the incidents self-reported in a 2004 survey were not of a serious nature. The most common offences were non-injury assaults (28%); the selling of non Class A substances (19%) and thefts from the workplace or from school (16%); When violent incidents do occur, many don’t involve injury and are often committed on the ‘spur of the moment’ against someone the young person knows. This often means a fight (maybe between friends) and usually takes place near home in the afternoon time; At the end of December 2005 more children were in prison for robbery than any other offence; Despite media attention on violent offending, few cautions or convictions relate to violence”.

The British government aims for every child whatever their background or circumstances to offer them the support they need to be healthy and safe; enjoy and achieve; make a positive contribution; and achieve economic well being. In March 2005, the first children’s commissioner for England was appointed. The commissioner was entrusted with the task of “gathering and putting forward the views of the most vulnerable children and young people in society, and will promote their involvement in the work of organizations whose” In November 2000, Children’s fund was launched to tackle disadvantage among children and young people. Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships funded by the Home Office aims at the reduction in crime. A number of other programs like Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships, the Prolific and Other Priority Offenders Strategy, Local Area Agreements, Neighborhood Policing etc. are being run. In March 2006, the Youth Justice Board published Youth Resettlement - A Framework for Action. This framework focuses on a number of areas and highlights issues specific to the youth context. The areas covered by the framework are: Case management and transitions; Accommodation; Education, training and employment; Health; Substance Misuse; Families; Finance, Benefits and Debt.

Paul Omajo Omaji has strongly favored the case for restorative justice in place of retributive justice system which according to him is traditional and outdated. The tradition justice systems have failed to deliver, according to him, therefore a radical transformation in the justice delivery system in partnership with local agencies might be needed.

Recently the government has introduced a range of intervention measures to check crime in the first place. These and similar other programs are aimed at a wider population of children at risk. These include:

Sure Start: aiming to improve the health and well being of families with children up to the age of 4 in the first place ensuring they are ready to flourish when they go to school.

On Track: is a small initiative aimed at older children who have been identified as at risk of getting involved in a crime.

Communities That Care: is an evidence based prevention program run by communities in partnership with local agencies.

Youth Inclusion Program (YIP) targets 50 of the most ‘at risk’ or ‘most disaffected’ 13 to 16 year olds in the most deprived neighborhoods.

Safer Schools Partnerships (SSPs): place police officers in schools to reduce truancy, crime and victimization among young people, challenge unacceptable behavior, and provide a safe and secure learning environment, and

Youth Inclusion and Support Panels (YISPs): are multi agency panels set up by the Youth Justice Board to target children at risk of offending and those starting to offend.

David Farrington, Professor of Psychological Criminology at CambridgeUniversity, discusses a program that has been highly successful in America that could also be applied in Britain. The program he speaks of is Communities that Care program aimed at reducing antisocial behavior among young people. It has been devised by researchers at the University of Washington, Seattle. It can be easily adapted in the United Kingdom for its flexibility and systematic approach. It is known as ‘a risk and protection focused program’, based on a social development strategy that can be tailored to the specific needs of a neighborhood, district or city. Its features include:

Community mobilization: key leaders together with a management board consisting of representatives from local agencies and the community work in close coordination. The board arranges a detailed assessment of local risks and resources and formulates an action plan.

Implementation: implementing techniques from a menu of strategies that research has shown to be effective, is aimed at addressing priority risk and protection factors

Evaluation: detailed monitoring is an inherent part of the program so as to evaluate program's progress and effectiveness.

There are mentoring programs with the potential to be quite successful, but are unfortunately languishing for funds. One such project aimed at reducing the risk of criminal behavior amongst young people in Cambridgeshire. “The plea for financial support from CSV Cambridge Mentors and Peers comes in the wake of national acclaim for one of its sister projects in Essex which was featured recently in The Independent newspaper and BBC1’s Breakfast news program. Both projects, plus a third one in Bedford aim to reduce the risk of criminal behavior amongst young people”

The research at the University of Luton Vauxhall, Centre for the Study of Crime has shown distinct positive impact that volunteer mentoring projects involving young offenders can lead to: “a reduction in offending behavior, a reduction in problems at school and an improvement in young people’s confidence, self-esteem and self-awareness. The young people involved highlight the significant value of the ‘volunteer mentor’ role - they say they value the friendship, trust, guidance and encouragement of the volunteer.” The editorial of The Independent has spoken eloquently about the mentoring schemes for young people. Its editorial says, “The Mentor and Peers (MAP) project, run by the Community Service Volunteers charity, is interesting because it aims to avoid the error of similar schemes: waiting for young people to fall foul of the law before offering them guidance”.

CSV Cambridgeshire Mentors and Peers was established in 2002. It expanded and grew to recruit and train 18 dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers that made a huge difference to the lives of young people in Cambridge and the surrounding areas. “Research shows how volunteers can help in the fight against crime in the UK, indicating that volunteering has an effect on reducing - and even preventing - crime. Unfortunately, in spite of its success and support from the local Youth Offending Service, CSV Cambridgeshire Mentors and Peers will no longer be able to offer mentoring to local young people due to a lack of funding” (

The government programs have not all been very successful. The Sure Start program was expected to be highly successful, but the evaluation’s interim findings were not quite encouraging. On Track Program is successful to the extent of reaching the high risk families in the deprived areas, use of these services is lower than anticipated. However, the program is being viewed favorably among parents and children where they are used. This program runs the risk of stigmatizing the very children and families it intends to help, since it is an individual rather than area based study. An alternative model borrowed from the US, the Communities That Care, is now being rolled out in UK. The other government initiatives have also shown at best the mixed results. The Youth Inclusion Program aimed at 10 hours of intervention per person per week, but in practice very few young people ( less than 10 percent) achieved this level of attendance. SSP programs have shown a robust success in terms of reduced truancy, and improved exam pass rates. According to an assessment of offending data in three schools that adopted SSP model of a full time police officer plus support team, a before and after study found that 139 offences were prevented annually.

Another crucial initiative, Every Child Matters, is in response to the tragic death of Victoria Climbie in 2002, who was persistently abused, tortured and murdered by her own relative. The government responded by initiating a public inquiry that subsequently published a consultation document ‘Every Child Matters’ (DfES 2003). It offers a new initiative on securing the well being of children and young people up to the age of 19. It ensures intervention reaches children before the crisis point.

Until recently due to limited empirical evidence, evaluation of youth crime program was restricted to two main programs- Dalston Youth Project (DYP) and CHANCE. Another program Youth At Risk (YAR) gained publicity but it has not been subject to independent published research. The DYP runs programs for 11-14 year olds and 15-18 year-olds, the disaffected youths from one of the most deprived boroughs in England and Wales. Research on the older age group suggests some possible impact on self-reported offending and truancy (though not drug use). DYP worked successfully with about half those involved. However, about half did not engage with the project in any meaningful way. The overall impact on offending behavior was disappointing and gains in other areas such as behavior, attitudes and learning were modest.

CHANCE was another significant UK mentoring program established in 1996 to work with primary school children with behavioral problems. Since the evaluation was extremely small scale with very limited number of children. Another significant study in the UK evaluated 10 mentoring programs focusing on highly disadvantaged young people. The study found crucial and significant impacts of mentoring in the lives of disaffected young people in context of engagement with education, training and employment.

Youth crime is a sensitive topic in the western world. Although available data on youth offenses indicate a decline in crimes committed by the young people in age group 12-30 over the last decade and a half, some experts are of the opinion that the data needs to be examined carefully. Media and politics too have debated enthusiastically on the youth crime losing the focus on the topic. While politicians and people by and large displayed a knee-jerk reaction to youth offending by favoring harsher punitive measures, a number of studies have gone on to point that there is little understanding and appreciation of youth offending among the masses. The studies have pointed that a majority of the youth offences are in the nature of minor offences or even childhood pranks. However, the researches on the topic have identified a number of risk factor associated with youth offences that almost makes it predictable. Therefore, it is now almost unanimously contended that approaches that deal with early intervention in offence prevention can be quite successful, while the traditional approaches of punitive, penal and retributive justice not only entail a huge cost to the exchequer but hardly account for reduction in offences. The government and the voluntary agencies run a number of programs aimed at identifying the risk group among the population and intervening in a timely manner. Earlier, quite a few case studies came to light that further reinforces the faith in early intervention approaches. The programs have shown a mixed result largely due to the apathy of the target groups. Some of the programs based on community and neighborhood approaches have shown better results.


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