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Societal Factors

and how they affect juvenile delinquency 

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Miller and Montgomery decisions may have ramifications far beyond the end of mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles.  The fact that the nation’s highest court used scientific evidence about brain development in these decisions moves the U.S. criminal justice system a step closer to the “public health model” that many psychologists and criminologists have long advocated.  


That model suggests that all crime, but especially crimes committed by juveniles, should be treated as a public health issue.  By addressing the factors that contribute to juvenile delinquency, advocates argue, the country could cut down on crime. This could happen, they say, in much the same way that rates of fatal car accidents have been reduced by speed limits, strict drunk-driving laws, and safety equipment like airbags and seat belts. 

“There are likely many, many factors” contributing to the juvenile delinquency, said Jamie Hanson, an assistant professor of Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. “It's complex, and likely not one specific factor.” 


An article published by Regis University’s College of Contemporary Liberal Studies in 2016 said such factors include, but are not limited to, “poor education, low school attendance, peer pressure, and disadvantaged socioeconomic status.” A majority of these social factors stem from childhood problems and family environment. Understanding them is a necessary first step toward prevention. 


Criminologists have recognized a strong correlation between lack of education and failure in school to delinquent behavior. And the United States has an abundance of failing school systems.  


According to an article published by American Civil Liberties Union in 2017, schools in different areas of the country lack significant resources such as qualified teachers, textbooks and other classroom necessities. They also lack special education services and proper learning facilities. 


The ACLU has also noted an ongoing trend of students from failing schools ending up in prison. “Many of these children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse, or neglect, and would benefit from additional education and counseling services. Instead, they are isolated, punished, and pushed out,” the ACLU reported in 2017. 


“If there’s stuff to get involved with, whether good or bad, people will get involved. [Adults] throw police, teachers and social workers at [these young people] and expect something to happen. School becomes a bad place to be,” Duquesne University Criminal Justice Professor Norman Conti said in an interview. 

Students who perform poorly in school can become discouraged, neglect school, and thus face suspension or expulsion. If students withdraw from school, they have ample free time to become involved with the “wrong” crowd of people, which can lead to delinquent behavior, experts say. 


During adolescence, youths spend more time away from home, separate from close family members and relatives. They spend more time with peers.  Building friendships with the “wrong” group can lead children into crime. 


An article in The Journal of Humanities and Social Science emphasized the importance of peer influence. The “presence of anti-social peers is a major determinant of criminal behaviour among children of 12-14 years.” If delinquent behavior is supported by peers at a young age, it is likely to continue as the child matures into a teenager and eventually an adult, the article said. 


By: Jordan McNally and Stephanie Wilkinson

Disadvantaged socioeconomic status and a turbulent family life also impact juvenile delinquency rates. Children’s understanding of right and wrong stems from what they are shown and taught by their parents. Home is the first place children witness the kind of behaviors they are likely to mimic. 


According to Michael Shader of the U. S. Department of Justice, “The strongest predictors of later convictions for violent offenses (up to age 45) were poor parental supervision, parental conflict, and parental aggression, including harsh, punitive discipline.”  


In a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article about Hanson’s research, reporter David Templeton wrote, “Abused children tend to focus on negative things in their environment, such as angry faces or voices in a crowd. They also can be more pessimistic about situations likely to lead to good things.” Hanson’s research also touched on how abused children may be less able to predict likely outcomes. Continued punishments for misbehavior may become less effective and cause the young person’s problems to snowball. Without proper parental supervision or intervention, these children develop bad habits, which can evolve into criminal behavior. 


Hanson also found that this type of abuse usually occurs within families that live in disadvantaged neighborhoods, where substance abuse, crime, unreliable housing and a lack of communal organization are more common.   


The lack of social networks and sense of community can lead to isolation among residents, which enables crime to go unreported. Children living in such areas are prone to become involved with serious criminal activity because it may be a part of their daily environment.  


Substance abuse, another leading factor when it comes to juvenile delinquency, can also have a long-lasting consequence on adolescent brain development. In turn, that potential damage can negatively affect family life, school performance and positive peer relationships.  

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Standardized screening tools are available to help pediatricians, dentists, emergency room doctors, psychiatrists, and other clinicians determine an adolescent’s level of involvement (if any) in tobacco, alcohol, and illicit and nonmedical prescription drug use.” These screenings help doctors and other professionals determine how many teens use and abuse specific substances.   


Studies show 80 percent of people incarcerated in the United States have been drug or alcohol abusers. Alcohol plays a part in 40 percent of all violent crimes. According to the Department of Justice, nearly 40 percent of almost two million convicted offenders currently in jail or prison have reported that they were intoxicated at the time of their arrests. Statistics related to alcohol use by vicious offenders show that around 50 percent of all murders and assaults are committed when the offender and/or the victim is either drunk, high or both. 

With all the above-mentioned factors contributing to juvenile delinquency, what can be done to mitigate their effect? 


Jamie Hanson of Pitt advocates the public health approach: “Many early childcare programs like the Perry Preschool in Michigan or the Abecedarian project in North Carolina help to reduce larger delinquency outcomes in ‘at risk’ kids who had different kinds of risk factors. They offered help with lots of different socio-emotional education components (teaching kids to regulate their emotions in different ways), as well as often providing family support.” 


There are hundreds of programs like these around the United States and they help tremendously, he said.  The recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions may increase their visibility. 

Some adolescents – namely sociopaths and psychopaths – carry a special set of risk factors. Many early signs of sociopathy and psychopathy resemble the signs of juvenile delinquents. But one difference is that psychopaths and sociopaths show no signs of guilt and feel no remorse after they commit a crime. 


When committing crimes, psychopaths tend to plan the details of their actions and even have backup plans in place. Sociopaths, on the other hand, tend to be more spontaneous. Sociopaths also have problems in social settings while many psychopaths usually appear calm and collected. Psychopaths can hide their problems easier than sociopaths, who tend to act out in a more sporadic way. The differences between the two expand beyond just how they may act when committing a crime. Psychopaths are usually well educated as opposed to sociopaths, who are often uneducated. Psychopaths lack the ability to form personal attachments, while sociopaths will become attached to an individual or a group of peers.  


Sociopaths and psychopaths both suffer from antisocial personality disorder. They both lack empathy. They both demonstrate disregard for social norms and behavioral standards. Both can be violent. 

Sociopaths and Psychopaths 

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