Juvenile Crime Theories
There are many myths concerning crime and one of the largest myths is the good kid with the great future, for unbeknownst reasons becoming a juvenile delinquent. This myth likely derived from biases in parenting which prevent individuals from taking responsibility for a child’s behavior. Biases in the media which play on the idea of the ‘good kid gone wrong’ or ‘the bad seed’ have helped proliferate this myth, which strongly contrasts the majority of delinquency cases which are a complex combination of environmental, parenting, education, social, and genetic forces among other elements.
There are a variety of theories that attempt to explain why some adolescents are motivated to commit crimes while others are not. While many of these theories have merit they are all somewhat flawed when viewed as a singular cause. This has led many researchers to believe that an interdisciplinary approach is the most effective perspective to understanding what motivates juvenile crime (Repko, 2008). According to Repko (2008) all theories of crime motivation “fail to provide the truly comprehensive perspective on the problem that policymakers and the public really need. On too many issues of public importance, the disciplines tend to talk past each other” For this reason, it is imperative that juvenile crime be understood using the most prominent concepts including neurology, behavioral, and cognitive theories.
The neurological theory is an old conceptual framework for understanding criminal motivation. The neurological theory covers a vast area of thought including genetics, brain abnormalities, brain damage, and trait theory. From this theoretical standpoint, it is believed that juvenile crime may be motivated by these many factors. There is substantial evidence to support this conclusion as many studies have shown that both brain damage and genetics have a significant impact on behavior.
More than 100 studies of twins and adopted children have confirmed that about half of the variance in aggressive and antisocial behavior can be attributed to genetics. Other research has begun to pinpoint which specific genes promote such behavior (Raine, 2013).
Other studies have shown that severe head injuries can produce changes in personality in which the individual becomes more aggressive or impulsive (Pinel, 2011). What these studies mean for juvenile crime is that some people may be born with a tendency to commit crimes or if a child has suffered severe physical abuse, he or she may have incurred brain trauma which results in violent behavior and tendencies. Despite the evidence surrounding the neurological approach, there are many instances of juvenile crime which cannot be explained through genetics or brain injury. Simply speaking, there are many cases in which people with brain or genetic maladies do not commit crimes and this occurs often enough to bring doubt to neurological issues as the sole cause. In these instances, researchers look to behavioral and cognitive theories.
The behavioral theory encompasses a large number of theories pertaining to the motivation behind juvenile crime. In a broad scope, these theories are based on behavioral learning theories such as conditioning. There is substantial evidence that violent behavior is learned through observation. The one recurring theme in research into juvenile violence is the impact of witnessing the violence as children (Dryden-Edwards & Stöppler, 2013). Children who are raised in environments that experience violence learns or develop a belief that violence is an acceptable means for resolving conflict (Dryden-Edwards & Stöppler, 2013). There can be no doubt that environment and the association with individuals within this environment play a large part in the development of behavior. However, not all kids growing up in tough, crime ridden areas go on to become criminals which reflects other causal forces.
The observation of crime and violence as a learning device lends itself readily to cognitive theories. If children experience violent or antisocial behavior they are learning a way of thought which may be irrational or creates dissonance (Pinel, 2011). The cognitive process may be disturbed creating negative behavior. As well, this problem could be magnified by the fact that there are several significant changes that begin to occur during middle childhood starting first with peer interactions and increased emphasis on the development of friendships. According to Berger (2008), friendship fulfills specific needs relating to intimacy, companionship, and acceptance. Another way of viewing this peer interaction is that it is a learning center for behavior in which children rejected by peers are at increased risk of negative outcomes difficulty adjusting to situations in adulthood and are at risk of depression, mental illness, anxiety, and other conditions (Erdley, 2004).
Part of this cognitive development from middle childhood to adolescence is increased egocentrism. Children will become intensely self-aware and become conscious of what other individuals are thinking of them (Berger, 2008). It is believed that this egocentric thinking is a natural means by which children become more independent thinkers. This period is characterized by many positive and negative aspects of thinking. Adolescents will often become consumed with thoughts of the future, emotions, and other people’s perceptions of them (Elkind, 1967). Depending on the peer interaction and family dynamic which is taking place these can lead to positive or negative events. For example, rebellion can lead to minor acting out such as minor irresponsibility’s or it can lead to extreme behaviors such as crime. The manner in which children handle this conflicting period is determined largely by what they have learned from family and peers. These cognitive changes can amplify an already fearful or unstable mind providing groundwork for neurological theories.
When looked at from a multidisciplinary approach juvenile becomes a more complex issue. This behavior is most likely the combination of neurological, behavioral, and cognitive factors. Understanding this idea shows that juvenile crime is more a function of many factors including family, society, and biology.
There are a variety of theories that attempt to explain why some adolescents are motivated to commit crimes while others are not, and while many of these theories have merit, they are all somewhat flawed when viewed as a singular cause. This has led many researchers to believe that an interdisciplinary approach is the most effective perspective to understanding what motivates juvenile crime (Repko, 2008). According to Repko (2008) all theories of crime motivation “fail to provide the truly comprehensive perspective on the problem that policymakers and the public really need. On too many issues of public importance, the disciplines tend to talk past each other” For this reason, it is imperative that juvenile crime be understood using the most prominent concepts including neurology, behavioral, and cognitive theories. More importantly, one should not assume that anyone's cause is the reason for juvenile criminal behavior as this may overlook vital issues impacting the child.
Berger, K. S. (2008). The developing person through the life span (7th ed.). New York, NY: Worth Publishers.
Dryden-Edwards, R., & Stöppler, M. C. (2013). Domestic violence. Retrieved from Medicine.net: http://www.medicinenet.com/domestic_violence/page3.htm
Elkind, D. (1967). Egocentrism in adolescence. Child Development, 38, 1025–1034.
Erdley, C. (2004). Finding a friend: children’s friendships are training ground for adult relationships. Retrieved from Science: http://scienceblog.com/community/older/2000/E/200004605.html
Pinel, J. P. (2011). Biopsychology, Eighth Edition. Boston, Mass: Allyn & Bacon. Pearson Education, Inc.
Raine, A. (2013, April 26). The Criminal Mind Advances in genetics and neuroscience are revolutionizing our understanding of violent behavior — as well as ideas about how to prevent and punish crime. Retrieved May 30, 2014
Repko, A. F. (2008). Interdisciplinary research: Process and theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.