Juvenile delinquency is one of the most pressing issues that any society can face. There are certain risk and protective factors that influence children's disposition toward criminal behavior. These factors can be grouped into community, individual, and social categories. Each of these three categories contain certain risks that can contribute to a child's tendency to engage in delinquent activities. Schools, families, and other communities have a responsibility to try and protect the youngest and most vulnerable members of our society from being exposed to these factors. By doing so, we can address the problem at its root and curb the delinquency along with the problem of substance abuse which has become so prevalent in recent years. There are also specific methods and approaches that should be used for finding and treating adolescents who have problems with substance abuse. One important change we can make in order to find adolescents who actually need treatment is the improvement of correctional facilities' screening process, whereby adolescents would be evaluated for potential substance abuse disorder. Since there is no universal approach to actually treating delinquent juveniles, the responsible institutions and specialists should use methods that proved to be effective in the past.
Juvenile delinquency and substance abuse is considered to be one of the society's biggest and most urgent issues. We define delinquency as any kind of behavior that can be described as illegal and/or antisocial, which includes: „drug use, underage drinking, violence, sex crimes or property crimes“ (Alcoholrehab). Recent statistics show that in 2013 alone, juvenile courts in the U.S. processed nearly 1.1. million cases of delinquency (OJJDP, 2015). Although the crimes committed by juvenile offenders are generally less severe than those committed by their adult counterparts, the phenomenon of juvenile delinquency still needs to be taken seriously as their actions both directly and indirectly harmfully affect themselves, their families, and the communities they live in. The first part of this paper will look at the factors that lead to juvenile delinquency and present some methods that could potentially help in stopping it in its tracks; the second part will focus on juvenile substance abuse, its connection with criminal behavior, and also look at some methods aimed at specifically helping adolescents with substance abuse problems.
Although there is no exact way of knowing whether a child will engage in delinquent behavior, certain elements that help us make these predictions do exist. We call these elements risk factors; they are considered to be essential in preventing juvenile delinquency. According to a study conducted by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, these factors can be grouped into three categories: individual, social, and community factors. As the number of these factors increases, so does the chance that a child will develop criminal tendencies (Flores, 2003). I will try and go over each of these categories in order to determine what leads children to engage in delinquent behavior.
Individual factors are defined as a combination of child's genetic, emotional, cognitive, physical, and social characteristics (Flores, 2003). Early antisocial behavior is an individual factor that often precedes delinquency in later years (Flores, 2003). Disregard for social norms in the form of stealing, vandalism, or displays of aggression can be considered antisocial behavior. Numerous studies confirm that early antisocial tendencies may successfully predict later delinquent behavior. One prominent study states that aggressive tendencies in nursery school were best predictor of a child's later involvement in property crimes (Haapasalo and Tremblay, 1994). Another study has shown that juvenile offenders have lower average global IQs and achieve poorer results in school when compared to non-offending juveniles (Fergusson and Horwood, 1995). This implies that there is a connection between a child's cognitive development and later problematic behavior. Some studies also concluded that hyperactive children are often prone to delinquency. One such study states that the combination of hyperactivity and aggression can lead to delinquency (Lahey, McBurnett, and Loeber, 2000)
The second group of risk factors encompasses those pertaining to the child's family. These are numerous and include issues with parenting, maltreatment and family violence, history of antisocial behavior in parents, divorce, family size etc. Children normally spend most of their early childhood with their families, so it is no surprise that the way they experience the world during this time should influence their behavior and outlook on it later. The two most reliable family factors for predicting juvenile delinquency seem to be the family size and parental antisocial history (Flores, 2003). Families whose members display antisocial behavior are often plagued by other issues as well, such as family violence and maltreatment. We can see why such environment would be unhealthy for a child to grow in. In fact, this kind of behavior often becomes almost hereditary, as criminality often persists in later generations of the same family (Flores, 2003). As for the family size, its impact on child's future behavior can be explained by decreased supervision in larger families, leaving children open to outside negative influences.
Finally, there are community and school factors. I mentioned above how most children spent the majority of their time with their families. Well, the second largest portion of their time they spend in schools. There they interact both with their teachers and their peers. These interactions coupled with the amount of positive reinforcement children get are considered to be one of the factors that contribute to their future behavior. As stated above, children with poorer achievements in school are at risk of developing tendencies for delinquent behavior (Flores, 2003).
All these factors play a role in determining whether a child will be inclined to engage in criminal activities. The chance of him becoming a delinquent increases with the number of factors present in his childhood. One of the ways to combat the risk factors is by introducing the protective factors that would help deter the negative ones. Some of the ways in which we can help curb the high delinquency rates include: making the family and school environments more nurturing and protective, developing school programs that would aim to reduce bullying and improve academic achievement, teaching children how to properly handle stress and achieve high levels of life satisfaction.
We can argue that the above mentioned factors can also apply to the problem of juvenile substance abuse, as substance abuse is also considered to be criminal behavior. This problem, however, still needs to be examined in its own right, as it is often associated with other types of juvenile delinquency.
This is exemplified by a recent study that shows the prevalence of substance abuse among adolescents who were detained for criminal behavior – 56% of detained boys and 40% of girls tested positively for drugs in 2000 (Chassin, 2008). The detainees are prone to repeated offending, but are also associated with a wide range of other negative effects and behaviors, such as violence and deteriorated psychological and physical wellbeing (Chassin, 2008). The high rate of substance-abusing juvenile delinquents indicates that there is something inherently wrong with the way institutions handle juvenile delinquents with substance-abuse problems.
The first thing institutions should do in order to address this problem, according to an influential research paper written by professor Laurie Chassin, is to better adjust their screening process. Screening is a method by which correctional facilities evaluate whether an adolescent has substance use disorder. Not all juveniles who use drugs and alcohol need treatment, only those who develop substance abuse disorders do. Attempting to treat all substance-using juvenile delinquents would be nearly impossible and extremely costly. Better screening methods would entail filtering adolescents who are in need of treatment by seeing how severe and frequent substance abuse is and to what extent it interferes with adolescent's life. Non-violent adolescents in need of treatment would then be redirected from justice system to community-based treatment programs where they would get the help they need (Chassin, 2008). By effectively treating juvenile offenders with substance abuse disorder, we might also curb the re-offending rates that are linked to the use of drugs and alcohol.
Chassin acknowledges that there is no panacea when it comes to treating adolescents with substance abuse disorder, as there is no single approach that proves to be superior to all the others. This indicates that adolescents are individuals with their own unique problems. In order to help in solving those problems and treating adolescents with substance abuse disorder, we need to have a variety of approaches to choose from. Chassin advises the use of therapies that proved to be effective in the past. She also states that environmental risk factors, such as antisocial family behavior and criminal peer networks, should be better addressed. (Chassin, 2008).
As a society we are obliged to do our best in order to help and protect our most vulnerable members. The practices of both handling and preventing juvenile delinquency and substance abuse are far from ideal. It is in our best interests to try and incorporate new methods and practices for dealing with this serious issue so that we can create a better environment for our children and ourselves.
Chassin, L. (2008). Juvenile Justice and Substance Use. The Future of Children, 18(2), 165-183. Retrieved February 2, 2016.
Fergusson, D. M., & Horwood, L. J. (1995). Early disruptive behavior, IQ, and later school achievement and delinquent behavior. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology J Abnorm Child Psychol, 23(2), 183-199. Retrieved February 2, 2016.
Flores, R. (2003, April). Risk and Protective Factors of Child Delinquency. Retrieved February 2, 2016, from https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/193409.pdf
Haapasalo, J., & Tremblay, R. E. (1994). Physically aggressive boys from ages 6 to 12: Family background, parenting behavior, and prediction of delinquency. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 62(5), 1044-1052. Retrieved February 2, 2016.
Lahey, B. B., Mcburnett, K., & Loeber, R. (2000). Are Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Oppositional Defiant Disorder Developmental Precursors to Conduct Disorder? Handbook of Developmental Psychopathology, 431-446. Retrieved February 2, 2016.
Delinquency and Substance Abuse. (n.d.). Retrieved February 02, 2016, from http://alcoholrehab.com/drug-addiction/delinquency-and-substance-abuse/
Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). (2015, November 02). Retrieved February 02, 2016, from http://www.ojjdp.gov/enews/15juvjust/151102.html