Theories of Juvenile Delinquent

A juvenile delinquent is a young person, who has not reached adulthood yet, but committed one act or a set of actions that are considered criminal and requiring punishment. Nowadays, approximately 75 million children in the United States of America (24% of the population) face various problems of growing up, run away from homes, and turn to drugs, alcohol, and crime. Being physiologically, emotionally and intellectually immature, youth is vulnerable and is influenced by their surroundings. The worse the environment of children and adolescents is, the greater is the risk of them becoming delinquents. Therefore, there are theories, which define environmental issues and hidden factors that contribute towards juvenile non-observance.

Why Do Theories of Juvenile Delinquency Exist?

The age of an average juvenile delinquent ranges from six to eighteen years. This period is the most crucial in the process of growing up as it has transformational and developmental influences on an immature human, who perceives and acknowledges the advantages and disadvantages of the world. Some juveniles tend to grow up sophisticated and intelligent young people and some lose their path, becoming malicious offenders. Thus, there are three categories of theoretical studies, which attempt to understand the motives of juvenile crimes. These are biological, sociological and psychological.

Biological Theory

According to the biological theory, children are predisposed to become delinquents from the very birth. The theory claims that criminal behavior is an attribute of the genes. Essentially, children are born without any particular gradations and tendencies to commit crimes. However, the lack of good upbringing, inappropriate education, and constant chaos at home prevents children from maturing into good and honest adults. Moreover, if the child is the born criminal, he/she will never mature into the good and honest adult, even if the upbringing is correct.

One of the creators of such theory is Cesare Lombroso (1835 – 1909) (Lombroso, Gibson, & Rafter, 2006). The name given to this theory by Lombroso is the “positivist theory”. The born criminal or “delinquent nato” is a very dangerous individual, who has physical and psychological deviations. For Lombroso, these abnormalities and highlighted deviations point to a person’s primitivism. What is more, primitivism indicates the atavistic characteristics of a person. Thus, it follows that a future delinquent is born with the specific facial features of a criminal. For example, multiple researches have found that anomalies typical of the born criminal include “voluminous jaws, jutting cheekbones, swollen sinuses, jug ears, microcephaly, crooked noses, prognathism, head trauma, epilepsy, alcoholism, and the median occipital fossetta” (Lombroso, Gibson, & Rafter, 2006). What is more, Lombroso compares epileptics and born criminals, stating that the factors and features of the lawbreaking behavior are common for both types. In addition, the researcher believes that “psychic gradations are echoed in physical characteristics of a human” (Lombroso, Gibson, & Rafter, 2006).

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Sheldon, in his turn, introduces another theory of genetic predisposition to crime. The researcher states that there are three main body types (the endomorph, the ectomorph, and the mesomorph), which determine human personality and disposition. The first two types Sheldon considers as innocent and incapable of committing a crime, however, the mesomorph type is different. This type is “athletic and muscular and craving adventure” (Holmes & Holmes, 2008). Basing on Lombroso’s positivist theory, Sheldon describes mesomorph as “ruthless, psychopathic and indifferent to pain” (Holmes & Holmes, 2008). Mesomorph is a born criminal, a human, whose bodily features allow him/her become violent and incontrollable.

Mesomorphs have specific traits, which make their brutal personality evident. According to Siegel and Welsh (2011), the process of delinquent development is dictated by certain biological traits, which do not change through a lifetime. These traits are called latent and they are “the stable features, characteristics, property or conditions, such as detective intelligence or impulsive personality, that make some people delinquency prone over the life course” (Siegel & Welsh, 2011). Siegel and Welsh (2011) also describe genes as unique attributes of every person. They believe that genes contribute to the construction of an individual as much as society does. If the social influence can be minimized and prevented from having a destructive imprint, genes, in their turn, cannot. If delinquency resides in a person’s genes it is likely to come out when the conditions will be “favorable”.

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Notwithstanding the good explanations and hard evidence, by the middle of the twentieth century biological theories were out of favor. They did not only fail to identify future criminal behavior, but were considered invalid.

Sociological Theory

In the twentieth century, new social factors that were found by researchers contributed to the research in criminology and human (youth) disposition. Sociological theory, which includes such spheres of life as economy, public health, environment and society, defines delinquent behavior by these factors and the level of their influence on young people. The first constituent and the most predisposing factor of delinquent behavior is the upbringing of a child. If the family is poor, parents are negligent towards their children, they usually smoke, abuse alcohol, drugs or other substances. Children in such families tend to grow up violent, introverted, and embittered. In most cases, children, who do not receive the needed love and support run away from homes and join criminal gangs. It is obvious that such gangs do not lead a healthy and righteous life. On the contrary, they steal, rob, stab, murder, rape, abuse and do it without any morality or pangs of remorse. According to the statistics presented by Siegel and Welsh, there are now approximately 31,000 gangs and the 850,000 gang members in the United States. What is more, about 2,300 gang-related murders occur annually (Siegel & Welsh, 2016).

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The second factor contributing towards delinquency is racial disparity. Racial, economic and social differences are inherent in different races. For example, according to the United States Census Bureau, the income of the average African American household is $33,726, while of the non-Hispanic white household - $56,565 (Siegel & Welsh, 2016). Thus, 28% of the African Americans are living in poverty, while only 11% of non-Hispanic whites struggle to make ends meet (Siegel & Welsh, 2016). Social conditions such as “poverty, decay, fear and despair, political unrest, economic stress, and family disintegration” (Siegel & Welsh, 2016) according to Siegel and Welsh, are the factors that lead to increased crime and delinquency rates. Economic inequality and constant poverty can be devastating for children. It is logical that these children become victims of their illusions, and, thus, have high incentives to commit crimes. Especially, nowadays, when new technology has advanced and developed, children, who lack opportunities, education, healthcare and simple support, tend to find alternative ways to achieve the things they desire.

Psychological Theory

One more way to explain the causes of child and adolescent delinquency is psychological. Numerous studies claim that problems of the psychological character often develop in delinquent youths. Psychologists tend to believe that delinquent youngsters have dysfunctional families, live in poverty, have conflicts with law and authoritative figures, and build destructive relationships with family members, neighbors, friends and teachers. All enumerated features indicate a disturbed problematic personality. What is more, studies of the incarcerated youths, who are antisocial, prove this disturbance. In addition, studies conclude that most of the incarcerated young people have psychiatric disorders of various kinds, such as anxiety disorder and many more. This theory is appropriate since it does not take into account the racial, socioeconomic and environmental factors.

Being a complex discipline, psychology has several perspectives on delinquency. These are psychodynamic theory, behavioral theory and cognitive theory.

According to psychodynamic theory, which belongs to Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939), “law violation is the product of abnormal personality formed early in life” (Siegel & Welsh, 2016). The argument of the theory revolves around three major components: the id (the in-born pleasure seeking), the ego (develops in the real world and helps the id to fulfill its needs), and the superego (bases on interactions with adults and forms the conscience). The three components interact simultaneously, developing moral thinking. However, such factors as unconscious conflicts, childhood traumas, family abuse, mood disorders and psychosis influence the id, the ego and the superego making them malfunctioning.

According to behavioral theorists John Watson and Professor Skinner, behavior “is triggered initially by a stimulus or change in the environment. If a particular behavior is reinforced by some positive reaction or event, that behavior will be continued and eventually learned” (Siegel & Welsh, 2016). Therefore, if criminal behavior of a child is reinforced, he/she is likely to commit more crimes and believe it to be the only possible and right way. Examples of bad behavior are considered as the only option of the righteous behavior, which should be learned.

According to the cognitive theory, delinquent behavior is dictated by the ability of youth to process information. Inadequate cognitive processing makes adolescents perceive the world to be a negative place and something that wants to control their lives. When the deviation in cognition becomes chronic, delinquents start to view crime as “an appropriate means to satisfy their immediate personal needs, which take precedence over more distant social needs such as obedience to the law” (Siegel & Welsh, 2016). Everything they believe in is distorted, full of wrong judgements and wrong decisions. Therefore, delinquent youngster, who has wrong ideas about anything in the world, acts according to these ideas: he/she robs people, because thinks that they should share, kills people, because believes they have no right to live. Cognitive abnormalities are detected almost in every delinquent who is incarcerated.


To conclude, a juvenile delinquent is a person, who committed crime and was incarcerated for the wrongdoing. The age of juvenile offenders varies from eight to twenty years old. There are multiple theories, which pinpoint factors and hidden predispositions of juvenile criminal behavior. For instance, biological theory designed by Cesare Lombroso presupposes that those, who commit crime, are born with the genetic facial features of a criminal and are genetically predisposed to becoming offenders. Another theory, which is sociological, believes that the environment (family, neighborhood, friends, teachers and other factors) are responsible for the child’s criminal behavior. If the child is brought up in an unhealthy atmosphere, it is likely that he/she will project the hardships of a childhood upon his/her further actions. The third theory is psychological. It assumes that all delinquents have a disorder, which makes them perceive the world improperly, form wrong beliefs and think that everyone is against them. Moreover, if the crime committed is reinforced, cognition attempts to learn such behavior to recreate it in future. Therefore, according to the three theories mentioned in the paper, a juvenile delinquent is young, with facial characteristics of a criminal, who had a bad childhood, was poor, believed everyone to be against him/her and earned a living and respect by committing crimes.

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