Home Law International Handbook of Juvenile Justice
CAUSES OF JUVENILE CRIME
Explanations for the causes of juvenile offending are extensive, and most are not unique to the United States. For example, biological theories may explain offending patterns of juveniles across countries and cultural groups. However, some characteristics of the United States may explain nuances of juvenile offending unique to the country. The following section addresses just a few of the notable factors that have shaped juvenile delinquency in the United States, including the changing social structures of cities, shifts in labor markets, and harsh drug sentences.
Some of the earliest research examining the relationship between social structure and delinquency in the United States originated in Chicago and found that social conditions impacted neighborhoods differently, as weak social controls were unable to prevent crime (Shaw & McKay 1942). Shaw and McKay found a uniform pattern of juvenile delinquents residing in the city, with high rates of delinquents living near the center of Chicago and fewer when moving out from the center of the city. They found that delinquents typically resided in inner city neighborhoods characterized by disorganization, racial heterogeneity, high truancy rates, high unemployment rates, and frequent residential mobility. This concentration of disadvantage in inner cities was worsened in many U.S. cities as many labor markets, especially those in the Northeast, shifted from manufacturing to service in the 1970s (Wilson 1987). Less-educated African Americans in these shifting labor markets had difficulties in obtaining employment, while middle-class African Americans left the inner cities behind for more affluent suburbs. The result was that young African American boys lost many positive role models and social ties, further weakening noncriminal social ties.
Another key factor that shaped delinquency in the United States was the response to emerging crack cocaine markets in the 1980s. After the declaration of the “War on Drugs,” states quickly began enacting mandatory minimum sentences and sentencing guidelines that treated low-level drug offenders punitively (Walker 2011). Poor African Americans were the typical users of crack cocaine, so the policy responses were primarily inflicted upon this population. Individuals reentering their communities with a felony record found it much more difficult to obtain legal employment, secure housing, and acquire educational loans. As many cities lost legal sources of employment, illicit drug markets filled their void. The high rate of arrests of young African American males in many American cities (e.g., Baltimore, Chicago) resulted in a large segment of residents in cities who were either incarcerated or unemployable, ultimately contributing to a cycle of violence and crime.
Concurrently, juveniles in these neighborhoods encountered increased challenges as many faced parental incarceration. Seven percent of juveniles have a parent with an incarceration history, a factor that places juveniles at risk for future delinquency (Murphey & Cooper 2015; Murray 2005). The impact of parental incarceration disproportionately harms African American juveniles, as 11.5 % of African American juveniles have a parent with an incarceration history, but only 6 % of Caucasian juveniles are impacted by parental incarceration. While parental incarceration may be beneficial to some juveniles (e.g., removal of abusive parent), others may be negatively impacted as they experience the trauma of separation and loss of parental resources (Johnson 2009). Cumulatively, these issues have impacted juvenile delinquency in the United States, as many juveniles growing up in neighborhoods with limited social capital and economic opportunities may turn to crime and gang membership, placing them in greater contact with police.
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