Social Control Theory and Juvenile Delinquency

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The juvenile justice system handles legal matters involving a juvenile, defined in most states as a person who is younger than 18 years of age. Juvenile Delinquency despite popular misconception is not crime. Delinquencies are acts committed by juveniles that would be crimes if committed by adults. One of the main focuses of the juvenile justice system that separates it from the regular justice system is the focus on rehabilitation instead of punishment. Juveniles are generally seen as easier to change and much more malleable in mind and personality than adults thus easier to “save” than adults who are normally just punished as a deterrent to other potential criminals.

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There are a few reasons children end up committing delinquent acts. Those being physical factors, mental factors, home conditions, school conditions, neighborhood conditions, and occupational conditions. There are of course risk factors, that make juveniles more likely to become delinquents and on the opposite end there are protective factors that decrease the odds of juveniles going down that road. Some theories to explain how adolescence turn into juvenile delinquents include the social learning theory, labeling theory, and control theory.

Social learning theory emerged in the 1930s and was developed by Albert Bandura, who was well known for his use of the Bobo-doll experiment. Bandura argued that children learned aggressive behaviors through modeling and imitation of others, especially through television. “Social learning occurs when individuals learn through observation the expectations of punishments and rewards associated with a certain behavior.” This is often stray critics to believe violent video games, films, and media when claiming these forms of entertainment as detrimental to the youth to cause their violent behaviors. Although it may seem to make sense that violent games make children violent there aren’t many conclusive studies on it. Despite the aged argument, there aren’t many studies on it therefore there’s no clear link between violent video game exposure and criminality/delinquency. 

Labelling theory is slightly different from other theories in the sense that it doesn’t necessarily explain why a delinquent commits their initial offense, but it attempts to account for the second and other offenses. The theory focuses on how the self-image and conduct of an individual is affected by society’s reactions especially through labelling. Based off work by George H. Mead and Charles Cooley, the theory postulates that we “develop our self-image based on our perception of what others think of us, and our behavior is based on the meaning we assign to the situation that develops through social interaction”.  This basically occurs when a juvenile commits an offense and continues to be treated like a criminal instead of receiving mercy or forgiveness.

When parents and other important figures in the juvenile’s life directly refer to the juvenile as a “criminal”, “problem child”, or other terms of that nature the idea is that the juvenile will begin to accept this label and apply it to their personality, believing this is all they can be. This is one of the major reasons now why most juvenile justice cases aren’t subject to a public trial and left anonymous. It is to protect the child from a negative stigma that may be attached to having gone through the juvenile justice system. It must be noted once more that the primary purpose of the juvenile justice system is not punishment but rehabilitation and treatment, if necessary, of the juvenile. 

While control theory is quite old, originating in the 1950s, it has evolved with different theorist having their own take on it, I’ve researched Travis Hirschi’s model of the theory as it’s one of the most influential so far. Hirschi believes that crime is the fastest and most effective way to satisfy desires. Because of this idea motivation for crime should be maintained persistently. Hirschi writes in his book, The Causes of Delinquency (1969), “delinquent acts result when an individual’s bonds with society are weak or broken”. (16) These bonds are divided into four elements and all of them are interrelated. The first element is Attachment. Attachment refers to emotional bonds the juvenile will develop with parents, peers, and teachers. Commitment are the investments one makes in the conventional society such as a mortgage on a home, loans taken out for college, or a career.

Belief refers to the juvenile’s belief in law and respect for society’s rule. Lastly involvement speaks to participation in recreational and conventional activities such as basketballs leagues, YMCA, and sports. When looking at juveniles and their probability of becoming delinquents a good indicator of future delinquency are their present risk factors. These risk factors can be divided into static factors meaning they don’t change or aren’t easy to change or dynamic factors, which can be changed or modified. Static factors can range from race, sex, and age to criminal family, income, and poverty level. While dynamic factors range from parental status, educational quality, maltreatment, and domestic violence.

Certain groups are disproportionately impacted by these risk factors and their outcomes such as minorities of color, the mentally ill, those who grow up in poverty, and those who identify as part of the LGBT community. Beyond just the risk factors we must also look at the protective factors present in the child’s life. Protective factors are the elements that decrease the juvenile’s odds of negative outcomes. Contrast to the risk factors, the more protective factors in a juvenile’s life the less likely they are to experience these outcomes. While protective factor could simply be the absence of risk factors, they could also be the presence of positive elements and figures around the child. These are things such as stable familial bonds, a high-income household, higher education, and social support to peers, teachers, and family.

Aside from these protective factors the outcome of a juvenile’s life is also subject to how resilient the child is. The Juvenile Justice system was created separately from the adult justice system for the purposes of rehabilitation, fulfilling treatment needs, and successful reintegration of the juveniles into society. However there are some risk factors that plays an important role that makes children more delinquent than others, and theories including the control theory, social learning theory and the labeling theory.

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Social Control Theory And Juvenile Delinquency. (2022, Feb 10). Retrieved from