A common delinquent behavior in many school districts is truancy, which is a “status offence” that is often seen as a warning sign or predictor of future more serious juvenile offenses. A juvenile is considered truant if she or he skips school without a valid excuse and without the knowledge of a parent or guardian. Truancy is huge administrative problem in the juvenile court system. Police officers can legally detain truant children and many states also issue fines or even jail time to parents. Since it often leads to unsupervised behavior or time on the streets, it is often involved in other juvenile offenses. One theory that could help us understand truancy and how a juvenile experiences and then either embraces deviancy or rejects delinquency is age-graded theory. Looking at the causes and factors associated with delinquency can provide us with clues about a “path to conformity,” or the ways that young at-risk people turn away from crime and pursue a more productive and positive lifestyle in their communities and out of the court systems and prisons (Siegel & Welsh, 2014, p. 213).
In their influential 1993 book, Crime in the Making, Sampson and Laub introduced the age-graded theory to explain why some at-risk children turn out to lead conventional lives and others continued their delinquent behavior and become adult criminals. They analyzed a large long-term study of juvenile delinquents to learn the factors that helped some juvenile delinquents become well functioning and non-criminal adults. Understanding a juvenile’s individual personality traits and negative environmental factors could help explain their behavior, and can be important contributing factors in explaining a persons path to adult criminality. This is not surprising: bad poor kids, from bad poor families, who live in bad poor communities often became adult criminals. However - and this is the important part of their research - social events, experiences and opportunities as a young adult can redirect a person away from a life of crime. Such positive developments or “turning points” could include involvement in sports, military service, employment, or marriage. These positive redirecting experiences involve “social capital,” which are the positive relationships and access to institutions and services that support a straight lifestyle (Siegel & Welsh, 2014, p. 214). A teacher or mentor could encourage them to pursue a hobby, like computer programming, that turns into a career. The military can provided structure and discipline. Employment can provide economic stability, while the right marriage partner can provide emotional stability and the motivation necessary to pursue a conventional lifestyle. According to age-graded theory, these life changes deter criminal lifestyles, and detour a juvenile away from possible criminality. Instead of focusing exclusively on a persons psychological makeup, it offers an optimistic perspective on the important role that positive social influences may have on a persons propensity to commit crimes. According to Sampson and Laub, these positive social factors decrease the propensity for criminality.
However, the theory also contains the usual recipe of negative social factors that sees young offenders become adult career criminals. For example, at an early age, some children display a “difficult temperament” and they throw tantrums, break toys and don’t play well with others. They may have undiagnosed and untreated mental problems. Then they may have environmental problems, live in a “rough” neighborhood, from a family with low socioeconomic status. Maybe they move around a lot, one of the parents is in prison, and there is no supervision. Then they form negative relationships with other delinquents, or an older sibling is a criminal, acting as a negative role model. Without a “turning point”, a kid goes from a teenage delinquent to an adult criminal without much chance of success. Instead of social capital, they accumulate “cumulative disadvantages,” like criminal records, which keep them from pursuing any conventional non-criminal life. According to Sampson and Laub, these negative environmental factors undermine a persons education, employability, and access to social capital; which encourages continued criminality (Siegel & Welsh, 2014).
So far, we have covered two components of the age-graded theory that explain a juvenile delinquents likelihood of becoming an adult criminal. The first is the positive effect of “turning points” involving social capital that turn kids away from crime. The second is the usual recipe for criminality. A person with a difficult or aggressive personality, who is raised in a bad environment, without any social capital, will probably become an adult criminal. However, a third part of their theory is “human agency” or free will, which involves the choices a person makes, and acknowledges that some kids do have social capital and support, and still become criminals; while other children raised in horrible environments go on to successful and productive law abiding lives. Some juveniles have aggressive, deviant or anti-social psychological predispositions and become hard working family men. Their theory uses both nature (or psychological predisposition) and nurture (positive or negative environmental factors) to explain criminality. However, ultimately, they concluded that there usually is a continuity of antisocial behavior from childhood to adulthood, and their research and long term studies of juveniles has supported their theory (Sampson & Laub, 2005).
According to the age-graded theory a juvenile – let’s call him Sam - might become a chronic truant. Sam is a troublemaker who lives in inner city Detroit. He has a difficult personality and does not always get along with other children. Sam gets into fights at school, receives punishments and hates authority. He perceives school as a negative environment and has no interest in education. He is not interested in organized sports, art, drama or other diversionary activities. Furthermore, he goes to a school in a poor neighborhood, with large class sizes, and many other at-risk students, and the teachers may not have time to give him adequate attention. Finally, Same comes from a socioeconomically disadvantaged household with little parental supervision. His parents do not know or even care if he goes to school or not, and his older brothers all dropped out of school, and are involved in criminal activity. He receives no academic support or encouragement. Many of his friends also skip school, so he has peers to interact with when he does skip school, and they happily spend their days skateboarding, playing video games, and engaging in minor criminal activity like shoplifting and smoking marijuana.
Without some positive social interaction, such as a teacher, mentor or other role model to provide assistance or guidance, Sam is probably going to continue his behavior and escalate his criminality. He has a negative peer climate that only encourages and reinforces his delinquent behavior. He has no social capital because he hates school, dislikes authority, and comes from a disadvantaged economic background. He is not likely to attend a Boys Club, a Nighttime Basketball League, or attend a religious institution that could provide a positive environment where he could get the social capital necessary to reach a “turning point” in his life. Sam could join the military, but his hatred of authority and minor criminal offenses disqualify him. His only hope is to become so good at skateboarding, that he turns professional, which would give the social capital and resources necessary to bust of the cycle of poverty and criminality. Without a strong work ethic, or role models to imitate, this is highly unlikely.
Sampson, R. J., & Laub, J. H. (2005). A general age-graded theory of crime: Lessons learned and the future of life-course criminology. Integrated developmental and life course theories of offending, 14, 165-182.
Siegel, L., & Welsh, B. (2014). Juvenile delinquency: Theory, practice, and law. Cengage Learning.