Delinquency and the practice of juvenile justice occur not in a vacuum but in a social context. This does not mean that individual factors such as biological makeup and psychological functioning do not play a role in delinquency or the operation of juvenile justice.

Source: Elrod, P., & R. Scott Ryder (2021). Juvenile justice: A social, historical and legal perspective (5th ed.). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.


Delinquency and the practice of juvenile justice occur not in a vacuum but in a social context. This does not mean that individual factors such as biological makeup and psychological functioning do not play a role in delinquency or the operation of juvenile justice. Nor does it imply that individuals do not make choices, often conscious choices, to engage in delinquent behaviors. However, it recognizes that individuals and the choices they make cannot be adequately understood without considering the social contexts in which they live and act. Social context also helps shape our views of juvenile crime and the operation of juvenile justice through the portrayal of delinquency and juvenile justice in the media. In fact, much of what most people (including many policy makers) know about juvenile crime and juvenile justice comes from the news media. However, the social context of juvenile delinquency and juvenile justice comprises more than the media. In the United States, juvenile delinquency and juvenile justice are influenced by a variety of factors found in the political economy of the United States and in communities, families, schools, peer groups, and other important socializing institutions. How political and economic arrangements and socializing

institutions such as families, schools, communities, and peers influence delinquency is a primary focus of theory and research in the field of criminology. Indeed, courses in criminology, juvenile delinquency, and criminological theory focus attention on how factors such as economic inequality, school failure, residence in high-crime neighborhoods, child-discipline practices, child abuse, association with criminally involved peers, and many other factors are related to delinquency. Explanations of illegal behavior that refer to such factors compose a significant body of criminological theory. Moreover, theories are important, as Stephen Pfohl has noted, because they “provide us with an image of what something is and how we might best act toward it.”1 The development of good theories of delinquency, then, could be used to develop policies that reduce or prevent it. They can also be used to develop effective responses to youths involved in the juvenile justice process. The following reading is intended to help you can a better understanding of the relationship between social context and delinquency and how various risk factors within this social context influence youths’ behavior.

Individual Factors and Delinquency

Many individual factors have been found to be related to delinquent behavior. These factors are often referred to as risk factors because their presence increases the likelihood of delinquency or involvement in the juvenile justice process. These risk factors consist of biological, genetic, or psychological characteristics of individuals that are strong predictors of delinquency, although such characteristics may be heavily influenced by the social or physical environment in which youths live. As noted earlier, youths undergo substantial biological and neurological development as they transition from childhood to adolescence and to young adulthood. As a result, errors in judgement and poor decision making are common as youths develop. Moreover, genetic and physiological

factors that result in cognitive and neurological deficits and mental and behavioral disorders are linked to delinquent behaviors. Common challenges exhibited by these youths include learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), traumatic brain injury, low IQ, impulsiveness, low self-control, and sensation seeking—all of which increase the probability

of delinquent behavior.3

In addition to genetic or physiological factors, a variety of other individual risk factors have been found to be closely related to youths’ involvement in illegal behavior. For example, youths who have attitudes that support delinquent behaviors, gun ownership, and drug use and youths who display antisocial and aggressive behaviors at an early age (referred to as early onset) are at greater risk of delinquency than youths who do not exhibit such attitudes and behaviors.

Similarly, children who are exposed to violence or are the victims of physical or sexual abuse are at

greater risk of delinquent behavior.4

Although each risk factor previously cited can contribute to delinquency, some youths experience multiple risk factors. For example, a youth who has a cognitive deficit may also be the victim of child abuse and display aggressive behavior at an early age. The cumulative effects of multiple risk factors would place the child at heightened risk of delinquent behavior and juvenile justice process involvement. Moreover, as the previous example indicates, youths with one or

more individual level risk factors are often exposed to environmental risk factors. Child victimization is the result of inappropriate family socialization practices that have significant impacts on children.

As last week, many youths are exposed to a range of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

Indeed, 45% of children in the United States have experienced at least one ACE, and one in 10 children has experienced three or more. The most common ACEs are economic deprivation and parental divorce or separation, but they include a range of other experiences such as living in a home in which a parent or guardian served time in prison or jail, someone was mentally ill or suicidal, a person in the home had a drug or alcohol problem, and where the youth witnessed

crime or was a victim of violence.5 Exposure to an ACE does not mean that a child will be permanently harmed, but exposure to multiple adverse experiences or exposure to experiences that result in severe trauma increase the chances that the individual will experience a variety of negative life outcomes if no efforts are made to help the child work through the trauma. For example, exposure to ACEs has been linked to alcoholism, drug use, depression, suicide, poor physical health, low educational attainment, unemployment, and poverty.6 Moreover, serious

trauma can influence a child’s physical and mental development and produce changes in the brain that produce psychological and behavioral symptoms that impair youths’ relationships with others and increase the likelihood that they will have contact with school and juvenile justice authorities. Psychological symptoms include hypervigilance (i.e., feeling an acute sense of threat), hyperreactivity (i.e., difficulty calming down once hyperreactivity is triggered), an unstable

sense of self, anxiety, depression, and brief periods of paranoia. Behavioral symptoms include poor school performance, self-harming behaviors such as cutting, difficulty relating to others, intense and inappropriate outbursts of anger, substance use, and weapon carrying, and they may also come across as tough, uncaring, hostile, and threatening.7 Note that there has been a good deal of research that has documented a strong association between low self-control and delinquent behavior.8 According to Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi, youth who exhibit low self-control are

“vulnerable to the temptations of the moment.”9 Thus, when these youths ae involved in the juvenile justice process, juvenile justice workers must recognize these symptoms and consider their causes so that they can make appropriate decisions related to the treatment of these youths.

Individual factors play an important role in delinquent behavior. Moreover, the effective treatment of youths’ behavior requires that individual risk factors be addressed. But note that even though some individual risk factors are the products of genetics or biological or psychological abnormalities that can influence youth’s behaviors regardless of their social environment,

many individual factors are also influenced by the family, community, and larger political and economic context in which children and adolescents live. In addition, many youths who engage in delinquent behavior are not exposed to the individual risk factors covered in this section. Indeed,

delinquent behavior, which covers a wide range of behaviors, is not uncommon and cannot be easily explained by individual risk factors alone. As a result, a more complete understanding of delinquency needs to consider the wider social context in which youths live.

The Family and Delinquency

There appears to be widespread agreement among both social scientists and the general public that the family plays a key role in child development and socialization. The family can be a place where members love each other, care for one another, and provide a mutually beneficial environment for healthy human growth. However, the family can also be characterized by conflict, a lack of mutual support and nurturance, and violence. Like other major socializing institutions, families are profoundly influenced by the political and economic context within which they operate. As D. Stanley Eitzen, Maxine Baca Zinn, and Kelly Eitzen Smith note, a family’s placement in the class system is the most important factor in determining family outcomes.10 For example, a family’s placement in the political and economic structure shapes the family’s access to and interconnection with other institutions such as work establishments, schools, churches, and voluntary associations. These institutions can function as resources for the family and facilitate access to other resources.11 Thus, children from wealthy families will have a definite advantage in life, whereas children from poor families will face a variety of obstacles in their efforts to achieve the American dream.

The family not only determines the economic conditions in which children live but also plays a primary role in shaping a child’s values, personality, and behavior. It is no surprise that a variety of criminological theories suggest that the family plays a significant role in the production or prevention of delinquent behavior, and numerous studies have examined various aspects of the

family that appear to be associated with delinquency. As Walter Gove and Robert Crutchfield note, “The evidence that the family plays a critical role in juvenile delinquency is one of the strongest and most frequently replicated findings among studies of deviance.”12 Essentially, this research has focused on two broad areas—family structure and family relations—that are felt to have a strong influence on juvenile delinquency and later criminality. Indeed, one important conclusion that

can be drawn from this research to date is that the individual’s experiences during infancy and early childhood influence behavior over the life course.13

Family Structure and Delinquency

Family structure refers to the ways in which families are constituted. For instance, are both natural parents present, is a stepparent present, is the family headed by a single parent, and how large is the family? One element appears clear: The structure of the American family has changed dramatically over time.

The Effect of the Single-Parent Home on Delinquency

Children today are more likely to live in single-parent households than in the past. For example,

in 1960 8% of all children lived with one parent, typically their mother; by 2018, the percentage of

children living in single-parent homes was approximately 23%.14 The increase in the number of children who live in single-parent homes has two main causes. First, many marriages—perhaps as many as 50%—end in divorce or permanent separation,15 and many of these marriages involve children. Second, more children live in single-parent homes because they live with mothers who have never married. For example, 21% of the children born in 1984 were born to unmarried women, but that percentage increased to 42% by 2014.16

Of course, the high rate of marital dissolution and the growing number of out-of-wedlock births have not occurred in a social and economic vacuum. Rather, they are influenced by a complex set of social and economic factors. Although most Americans indicate that they value marriage, considerable evidence suggests that the importance given to marriage and two-parent families

has eroded in recent years. The result has been a relaxation of social constraints on divorce, out-of-wedlock childbearing, and single parenthood.17 At the same time, the economic prospects of many young men, particularly those who are minorities, have worsened. Growing up in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods has negative impacts on young men’s future economic

prospects.18 Furthermore, one important factor that contributes to this disadvantage is the higher rates of incarceration experienced by poor men,19 particularly men of color. For example, Black men are almost six times more likely to be incarcerated than Whites and Latino men are three times more likely.20 Moreover, once incarcerated, men have reduced job and legitimate earnings opportunities. This influences marital dissolution and makes these men less attractive as marriage partners who can support a family.21

The relationship between single-parent families and juvenile delinquency has been the focus of considerable debate in the fields of criminology and juvenile justice. Indeed, some research has discovered statistically significant relationships between delinquency and single-parent homes or nontraditional families.22 However, research also suggests that the effects of coming from a single-parent or nontraditional home may not be the same for all youths. For instance, some research has indicated that coming from a single-parent home is associated not with serious delinquency but with status offenses such as running away from home and truancy.23 Also, some research has found that White youths, young females,24 and youths from high-income families25 are more likely to be affected in more adverse ways by parental absence. Yet other studies have reported that minority youths and children in low socioeconomic communities who lived in single-parent families were at greater risk of delinquency.26 Clearly, research has produced conflicting results regarding the characteristics of single-parent families that are related to delinquency.27

Although there does appear to be a relationship between living in a single-parent home and involvement in delinquent behavior, the research indicates that the relationship is not as strong as some people believe. Furthermore, much of the early research uncovering such a relationship was based on official data. A potential problem with using official data is that authorities may treat youths from single-parent homes differently from youths who live in intact homes.28 For example,

police may be more inclined to formally process youths from single-parent homes than youths from two-parent homes. The existence of such a bias is suggested by the fact that studies relying on self-report data have often failed to find a strong relationship between single-parent homes and delinquency.29

Research that has not discovered a relationship between single-parent homes and delinquency suggests that what is most important is not whether youths come from a single-parent or two-parent family, but the quality of the relationship that exists between those parents who are present and their children.30 For example, a study using a national sample of youths that looked at various family structural and family process variables and their relationship to delinquency

found that youths’ attachment to their mother was the most powerful predictor of delinquency.31

The Effect of Family Size on Delinquency

Family size is another aspect of family structure that may influence delinquency. In his classic study of delinquency, Travis Hirschi found that, even when controlling for academic performance, parental supervision, and attachment between youths and their parents, family size was related to delinquency.32 This finding is supported by research conducted in England, although the relationship discovered was much weaker for middle-class families than for lower-class families,33 which suggests that it may be economic resources rather than family size that is most important. Perhaps parents of larger families who have substantial economic resources may be better

able to meet their children’s needs in ways that reduce the probability of delinquency. Some researchers have questioned the relationship between family size and delinquency, arguing that a more important variable is having a delinquent sibling. Their line of reasoning is that having a brother or sister who is involved in illegal behavior is related to delinquency and that youths are more likely to have a delinquent sibling in larger families.34

Family Relations and Delinquency

The term family relations refers to the quantity and quality of interactions and relationships among family members. Like family structure, however, family relations are also influenced by the larger social context in which families reside as well as the economic condition of the family itself. As previously noted, families have changed in a variety of ways in recent years in response to political and economic developments.

The Influence of Women’s Employment on Family Relations and Delinquency

In 1960, less than 7% of married women with children participated in the paid labor force.36 In 2017, almost 69% of married women with children were employed.37 Indeed, one of the most important changes in the American family has been the growing number of women, including mothers, who are entering the workforce. The effects of mothers’ employment on children are not entirely clear, however. By working outside the home, mothers are able to improve the economic well-being of their families. In fact, in poor families and many middle-income families, the mother

must work if the children are to receive adequate care.38 A working mother can make a significant contribution to the economic well-being of the family—but it also means that the mother has less time to spend interacting with her children. This is a problem that single working mothers share with parents in dual-earner families when both husband and wife work outside the home. In response, many families have come to rely increasingly on childcare or leave children to care for

themselves for at least part of the day.39 The percentage of children who care for themselves for part of the day, often referred to as latchkey children, has declined in recent years from around 25% of all K–12 school children in 2004 to some 20% in 2014. Nevertheless, that means 11.3 million children have no supervision for some period of time.40 Although many people feel that a decline in the amount of parent–child interaction can obstruct child development, the extent of the effect is far from apparent. Some research indicates that there is virtually no developmental difference among toddlers who attend day-care programs and children taken care of at home, although there may be some negative health outcomes for infants.41 Moreover, quality childcare programs can facilitate children’s cognitive, emotional, and social development, and this is particularly true for disadvantaged children.42 Nevertheless, more recent research on the effects of childcare indicate that although there are some positive effects for some children in high-quality programs, children

who spend more time in day care displayed more behavioral problems compared with those who spent fewer hours.43

Even self-care does not always result in poor outcomes. Many children who are left unsupervised become more independent and learn to become more responsible for themselves over time. In contrast, other children who care for themselves experience loneliness and isolation and may be significantly disadvantaged by a lack of adult supervision. Furthermore, they may be at greater risk of accidents, injuries, and involvement in risky and problem behaviors.44 The importance of good adult supervision has been noted in a study by Thomas Vander Ven and his colleagues, who found that mothers’ employment had little effect on children’s delinquent behavior when they were adequately supervised.45 Thus, having good adult supervision for children appears to be a key factor in limiting delinquency.

Researchers also have examined the ways in which parents’ roles and experiences in the workplace influence their relationship with their children. Criminologists Mark Colvin and John Pauly argue that parents tend to reproduce at home the authority relations they experience in the workplace. The problem is that the differences in power characteristic of a capitalist economy result in workplace experiences that are authoritarian and coercive. In turn, these experiences

engender coercive and authoritarian relationships in many homes—relationships that are not conducive to the establishment of intimate bonds between family members and increase the likelihood of delinquency.46

The relationship between the economic system and the family is also the focus of John Hagan’s power control theory. According to Hagan, “Work relations structure family relations, particularly relations between fathers and mothers and in turn relations between parents and their children, especially mothers and their daughters.”47 Data collected by Hagan and his colleagues in Canada tend to support this hypothesis. From Hagan’s perspective, the power that parents have in the workplace is typically reproduced in the family. Hagan argues that when both parents are in positions of power in the workplace, the parents share power and the family structure is egalitarian. In such families, male and female children are socialized in similar ways, which results in comparable levels of delinquency among male and female children. However, in traditional patriarchal families, in which the mother remains at home, as well as in single-parent families, daughters are more likely to become the objects of control by mothers, who socialize their daughters to avoid risk. One outcome is that males tend to engage in more delinquency than females in such families.48

Family Socialization and Delinquency

An important process through which family relations are developed is socialization. Socialization refers to the ways that a child is taught cultural roles and normal adult responsibilities, and it involves a variety of interactions such as touching, holding, hugging, kissing, and talking to the child; listening to the child; feeding and clothing the child; and taking care of the child’s need for safety, security, and love. All of these interactions convey important messages to children.

One important aspect of socialization—one that is associated with delinquent behavior—is the process by which social control is developed and implemented in the family. One form of social control consists of the bonds that children develop with the family and family members. Indeed, research indicates that youths who lack closeness to parents or caregivers, or who feel there is little family cohesiveness, are more likely to engage in delinquency.49 In addition, some researchers

have uncovered a relationship between family conflict, hostility, a lack of warmth and affection among family members, and delinquency.50 Others have found a relationship between parental criminality, as well as parental imprisonment, and delinquent behavior.51

Family crises and changes also have an effect on family relations and appear to be related to delinquency. Some evidence suggests that disruptions in family life, such as moving to a new residence, separation or divorce of parents, and family conflict, can produce pressures that push youths toward acting-out behaviors.52 Overall, these studies suggest that when the quality of parent–child relations is poor or when there are significant disruptions in family life, delinquency

is more likely. They also suggest the converse: Positive parent–child relations act to control delinquent behavior.

Of course, parents exert other forms of social control, including the imposition of discipline. Considerable evidence suggests that inconsistent discipline, as well as overly harsh or lax discipline, is related to delinquent behavior.53 Unfortunately, some parents’ responses to their children’s objectionable behavior are not simply lax or overly harsh; they are neglectful or abusive. Child abuse consists of acts of commission—things done to children. Types of child abuse include physical, sexual, psychological, and emotional abuse. Neglect consists of acts of omission; in other words,

a parent or guardian fails to meet the needs of his or her child (e.g., the need for food, shelter, medical care, clothing, education, or affection). Neglect can be physical, emotional, or psychological. However, although child abuse and neglect consist of different forms of behavior, they often occur simultaneously—that is, children who are abused are often neglected as well, and children who are neglected are often abused.

The sad fact is that many children are subjected to abuse and neglect by their parents. Moreover, abuse and neglect have been found to be related to a variety of health, cognitive, educational, and social difficulties, including brain injuries, mental disorders, poor school performance, fear, anger, and antisocial behavior. 54 In one of the most comprehensive studies done

on the relationship among child abuse, neglect, and criminality, Cathy Spatz Widom and Michael Maxfield found that youths who were abused or neglected were 59% more likely to be arrested as a juvenile and 28% more likely to be arrested as an adult than youths with no abuse or neglect history. Moreover, youths who had been abused or neglected were 30% more likely to be arrested for a violent crime.55 These findings support the idea of a cycle of violence (a cycle in which those

who experience violence as children are more likely to engage in violence as adults).

Aside from child abuse and neglect, another indicator of the quality of family life is conflict between parents. Such conflict sometimes takes the form of domestic violence, which usually, although not always, involves males abusing their female companions. Like child abuse, the actual extent of domestic violence is not known because much of this behavior is not reported to the police. Nevertheless, domestic violence is a significant problem. Like child abuse, domestic violence rarely occurs as an isolated incident, possibly because each act of violence tends to reduce the inhibition against violence.56 Also, like child abuse, domestic violence has negative effects on children. Research indicates that children who observe domestic violence tend to be more withdrawn and anxious; they are more likely to perform well below their peers in school, organized

sports, and social activities; and they are more likely to exhibit aggressive and delinquent behaviors.57 In addition, research suggests that domestic violence and child abuse are related.58 For example, research on the co-occurrence of domestic violence and child maltreatment indicates there is a 30% to 60% overlap between violence directed at women and violence directed at children in the same families,59 and that dual exposure to domestic violence and maltreatment

is related to a variety of negative outcomes, including depression, delinquency, and aggression.60

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