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Juvenile Offending Theory Revisited

One of the most pervasive debates occurring in the realm of juvenile justice revolves around accountability and punishment. Every time a juvenile makes the news, especially when it involves a heinous crime, scores of juvenile justice professionals weigh in on what the appropriate consequence should be. Should and/or could the child be rehabilitated or should they be held accountable on an adult scale and face the most severe consequences, such as life in prison? Although these discussions occur at the seeming end of a juvenile’s criminal behavior, the debate actually stems from the discussions occurring prior to the behavior-theories of juvenile offending. Why do kids commit crimes in the first place? What creates the behaviors, nature or nurture or a combination of both? Are these criminal behaviors set in stone or are they part of a “phase”? It is because there are so many questions revolving around juveniles that punishment continues to be a hot debate.

Most professionals agree that the transition between adolescence to adulthood is one of the most significant changes in a person’s lifetime. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) stated in a recent report this transition “is a time of opportunity and vulnerability, a time of positive turnaround and redirection as well as a criminological crossroads.” Professionals recognize that this transition “involved major life course trajectories, including education, work, residence, family formation and parenthood.” This is a time when some individuals who began criminal activity in adolescence continue, as well as, escalate, while at the same time some decrease involvement. And still another category of individuals don’t begin committing criminal acts until they are into their adulthood. Although theory often begins and ends in academia, it has a place out on the street. Having an understanding of what elements drive criminal behavior allow us as juvenile justice professionals to interact with juveniles and also develop prevention programs that work. Here are five current broad theoretical perspectives that attempt to explain patterns of juvenile offending.

Static Theories

OJJDP describes static theories as those that “hold that behavior emerges in a predictable sequence and unfolds at roughly the same age for all individuals.” This theory assumes that “the causes of criminal behavior are established early in life and are relatively stable and unaffected by events.” Moreover static theory explains that the style of parenting and the quality of relationship between a child and their parent molds behavior due to increased low self-control and that youth “maintain their general position relative to others with respect to their levels of offending.” Those who prescribe to this theoretical view believe that the peak of criminal activity in adolescence is a “normative developmental change.”

Dynamic or Life-Course Developmental Models

On the other hand, dynamic or life-course developmental models “assume a plasticity to human behavior that persists throughout life.” This theory acknowledges the importance of early childhood experiences and “contend that changing social environments are the primary drivers of offending behavior.” All individuals are again molded by individual and parenting differences but if they can re-establish bonds to conventional society they will stop committing crimes.

Social Psychological Theories

This theory emphasizes subjective life experiences, for example “the development of one’s identity, cognitive and emotional processes, and the capacity to make choices.” Within this theory it is recognized that motivation is the key to changing criminal behavior. Once a youth is “motivated to change” and “redefine themselves” they find that criminal behavior is no longer compatible with their new identity.

Developmental Psychopathological Perspective

In the developmental psychopathological perspective, theorists deal from a variety of disciplines to explain juvenile criminal behavior. “In this perspective, development is a series of dynamic interactions among an individual’s genetic makeup, life experiences and social relationships.” Change can happen throughout life but negative early experiences can alter brain development and also create inappropriate reactions to stress. Opportunities and vulnerabilities during the transition from adolescence to adulthood help explain those who chose to give up criminal behavior, as well as, those who choose to continue into adulthood.

Biopsychosocial Perspective

This perspective “regards behavior as a complex interaction among biological, psychological, interpersonal and environmental processes.” Like the previous perspective, Biopsychosocial perspective theorizes changes can occur throughout life regardless of early experiences. The difference is that these theorists believe “a single explanatory framework is insufficient.” All the factors, including brain development, family environment and peer relationships influence each other.

The exciting thing about these new prevalent theories is that they all have one thing in common-change. Numerous theories in the past have posited that once a juvenile reaches a certain age, whether that is 18, 15, 11 or 8, the criminal predilections within them are set in stone. Remember super predator theory? These new theories articulate the flexibility in youth and the subsequent ability to change criminal behavior by addressing the underlying causes. Brain science continues to improve and show how adolescent brains work and this helps professionals address the different stages in development, especially in areas of impulse control, long term thinking and cause-effect reasoning. OJJDP concludes their report with a very poignant statement:

            “The malleability and changes in criminal behavior observed among youth and young adults in their teens and 20s make it difficult to justify applying permanent or long-term sanctions to young offenders. Policies such as life sentences without the possibility of parole or the lifelong application of civil disabilities, such as disenfranchisement, assume that criminality is a fixed trait that crystallizes early in the life course and is immutable thereafter. Criminological theory and the available empirical evidence call into question such assumptions, suggesting instead that change is common.”

Having studied juvenile justice during the time of set-in-stone theories and having altered my beliefs based on experiences while actually working with youth deemed “untreatable”, “unchangeable” and “too damaged”, I find the new generation of theories refreshing. They also present a message of hope for those children whose biology and/or environment have been less than ideal. They also allow professionals in juvenile justice to look at collaborative, preventative programs that can assist with influencing the changes needed to keep kids from criminal behavior, as well as, bring children back from these behaviors improving their quality of life and the safety and security of the community.