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Updated to reflect more recent research and data. More material on social work roles in work with juvenile delinquency was added, and also a conclusion section.

Updated on 02 Dec 2013. The previous version of this content can be found here.
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Juvenile Delinquency

Abstract and Keywords

The following article on juvenile delinquency has three major objectives: First, it defines delinquency and discusses its measurement and extent; second, it reviews theory and risk factor data on causes of delinquency; third, it discusses current trends in juvenile justice intervention and delinquency prevention, including social worker involvement.

Keywords: conduct disorder, delinquency, juvenile justice, status offender

Juvenile delinquency is a legal term that refers to an act committed by a juvenile that would be criminal if committed by an adult (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention [OJJDP], 2012). Such offenses include crimes against persons, crimes against property, drug offenses, and crimes against public order. Juveniles are defined as “Youth at or below the upper age of original juvenile court jurisdiction, which varies depending on the State.” (OJJDP, 2012). The upper age varies from 15 to 17. Law violations by juveniles also include status offenses—acts that would not be considered crimes if committed by adults in the jurisdiction, and include running away, violating curfew, underage liquor law violations, incorrigibility, and truancy (Agnew & Brezina, 2011). Status offenders now are not classified as delinquents in most states but, rather, as persons in need of supervision, services or care; yet status offenses are still illegal, and the term “delinquency” is used to refer to both status and other offenses by juveniles.

Juvenile courts have jurisdiction over delinquent acts. The juvenile justice system, including special courts for juveniles, came into being at the end of the 19th century to handle offenses by developmentally immature young persons with a less adversarial and less punitive system and with more concern for rehabilitation (Agnew & Brezina, 2011; Siegel & Welsh, 2011). The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Act of 1974, re-authorized in 2002, established many changes in the juvenile justice system, including deinstitutionalization of status offenders. The Act also created the OJJDP, which continues to provide national leadership for the current juvenile justice system.

Behavior that violates the law can also be a component of conduct disorder, a clinical mental health disorder involving a pattern of behavior in which the basic rights of others or societal norms or rules are violated (Henggeler & Sheidow, 2003; Springer, 2006). Both conduct disorder and juvenile delinquency thus involve antisocial behavior. Whereas delinquency can involve a single act, conduct disorder involves a pattern of antisocial behavior over time. However, in practice there is a great deal of overlap in the research literatures, including risk factors and etiology. Societal reactions to delinquency and conduct problems have changed over time, and debate continues about whether antisocial adolescents are responsible for their own behavior (and thus need control and punishment, like adults), or are subject to circumstances, including mental health disorders, for which they need treatment (Hirschfield, Maschi, White, & Traub, 2006; Mears, Hay, Gertz, & Mancini, 2007). Mental health disorders other than conduct disorder are quite prevalent among juvenile offenders, especially those in detention. Common co-occurring problems include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and substance abuse disorders. Internalizing problems such as anxiety, trauma, and depression are also disproportionately present among delinquents compared to nondelinquents (Cocozza & Skowyra, 2000; Hirschfield et al., 2006).


Estimates of the extent of juvenile delinquency come from two major sources. The first is “official” data from criminal justice agencies (such as arrest data, published annually by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the Uniform Crime Reports (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2011). The second major source of information on juvenile offending is self-report data from youth themselves. All sources of data are subject to various biases, and there is substantial discrepancy between official and self-report data. Arrest data, for example, only reflect a small proportion of the delinquent behavior indicated in self-report surveys, but include more serious crime. For example, in 2009, 1.9 million arrests of persons under 18 were reported, and about 13% of all arrests were of juveniles (Puzzanchera & Adams, 2011), with about 6,000 arrests per 100,000 juveniles in 2009. On the other hand, self-report data suggest that juvenile offending is fairly widespread—especially petty theft, underage alcohol use, and truancy. For example, 39% of high school students reported ever drinking alcohol—a status offense within the last 30 days (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2011). Almost 17% had carried a weapon, 5% had carried a gun, and 23% had used marijuana in the 30 days prior to the survey. Most delinquency is relatively transient, although large scale surveys suggest that about 6–8% of adolescents are chronic and serious offenders (Barton, 2011). Generally, data shows that violent crime in particular is declining (Puzzanchera & Adams, 2011). The juvenile violent crime rate in particular hit a historic low in 2009, to its lowest level since 1980 after a historic high in 1996 (Puzzancherra & Adams, 2011). Despite the overall drop in violence, youth gang violence continues at high levels in some cities (Howell, Egley, Tita, & Griffiths, 2011).

There are differences by demographic group in arrests and delinquency. African American youth are more likely to engage in and be arrested for violent delinquency compared with white youth (Hawkins, Laub, Lauritsen, & Cothern, 2000; Puzzancherra & Adams, 2011). Self-report data suggest smaller race discrepancies than official data. However, African American youth are disproportionately likely to experience the most restrictive sanctions, including residential placement (Siegel & Welsh, 2011; Snyder & Sickmund, 2006). In general, boys start delinquency earlier in the life course, and persist in having much higher rates of serious delinquency and conduct problems than do girls with a ratio of about 4:1. While young women are generally less likely to be arrested than are males, the relative proportion of female arrests including for violent delinquency has been rising (Leve, Chamberlin, Kim, & Smith, 2012; Steffensmeier, Schwartz, Zhong, & Ackerman, 2005). The percentage of girls arrested as a proportion of all juvenile arrests has risen to about 30%, an almost 50% increase from early 1990 rates (Leve et al., 2012). There is increased federal attention to girls’ delinquency as a consequence (Agnew et al., 2010). Differences in the prevalence of delinquency by demographic group are thought to be due mainly to differential exposure to risk, but there is debate about whether race and gender differentials also involve bias in juvenile justice processing (Agnew & Brezina, 2011; Steffensmeier et al., 2005).


Juvenile delinquency and conduct problems, including aggression, are predicted by a range of risk factors that are replicated across many studies (Barton, 2011; Siegel & Walsh, 2011). Individual factors include issues such as impulsivity, hyperactivity, and difficult temperament, and also include cognitive and neurological impairments. Family system variables include family violence, harsh and abusive parenting, lack of or inconsistent discipline, lack of support and attachment, and family conflict. School-related risk factors include early conduct problems in school, lack of commitment to school and lack of school attainment, and also ADHD and learning problems. Peer group factors are the strongest known correlate of delinquent behavior. Adolescents who spend time with delinquent friends or those who approve of delinquency are much more likely to be delinquent (Thornberry & Krohn, 2005). Community risk factors include chronic violence and disorganization in the neighborhood.

Criminological theories have employed a wide range of individual and social or environmental processes to explain differences in offending (see, for example, Agnew & Brezina, 2011; Siegel & Welsh, 2011). A rapidly growing body of research (also from several longitudinal studies) indicates that delinquency is determined by multiple factors interacting across multiple life domains. Development and life course theories now incorporate information about developmental changes in patterns of risk and delinquency and the impact of life events, including cumulative adversity (Agnew & Brezina, 2011; Farrington, 2003; Thornberry & Krohn, 2005).

Juvenile Justice Intervention, Prevention, and Rehabilitation

Juvenile justice interventions involve formal control through sanctions like juvenile placement and probation, as well as informal strategies, including prevention and rehabilitation or treatment. The balance of approaches has shifted over time. Starting in the 1960s, deinstitutionalization and diversion of juveniles from legal proceedings and into prevention programs gained momentum and an influx of federal funding for diversion and other rehabilitation programs to improve the system occurred. From the 1980s funding priorities shifted from prevention and diversion to the identification of serious and violent offenders (Siegel & Welsh, 2011). The shift from rehabilitative to punitive treatment for delinquents toward the end of the 20th century occurred in response to rising in crime rates and pessimism about the impact of rehabilitation as well as a more conservative mood in the nation and legal system. The “get tough” approach has included the use of waivers or transfers to adult courts for children as young as 10 who committed serious crimes, and increased use of confinement for serious offenders. Studies indicate however that this approach has had little effect on the rate of juvenile crime and may in fact lead to higher re-offense rates and general maladjustment (Agnew & Brezina, 2011; Barton, 2011; Lanctot, Cernkovich, & Giordano, 2007).

Some communities have developed special court systems such as truancy and drug courts to provide assistance at early stages of law violation to teens in trouble with the law to prevent further juvenile justice system involvement. Identified youth are referred for supportive and preventive services to prevent further law violation. Research on the impact of alternative courts is still in its early stages (Rodriguez & Webb, 2004). Counseling and other services are integrated with judicial processing, so that teens who cooperate with program requirements avoid more formal justice consequences and punishments. Youth conferencing and mediation models are also used increasingly with some promise (Nugent, Williams, & Umbreit, 2004).

A wide range of other programs and services are available to address juvenile delinquency, and in many cases evidence about their effectiveness in deterring delinquency is incomplete. However, information on a wide range of promising prevention and intervention strategies that target precursor behaviors and known risk factors such as poor school adjustment, aggression, skills deficits, and ineffective parental management is widely available (for reviews, see Barton, 2011; Henggeler & Schoenwald, 2011; Herrenkohl, Chung, & Catalano, 2004). Databases describing evidence-based programs include the Blueprints for Healthy Young Development (Blueprints for Healthy Young Development, 2013), the Campbell Collaboration (2013), and the OJJDP’s Model Programs Guide (OJJDP, 2013). A comprehensive preventive intervention developed by the Program of Research on the Social Developmental Model at the University of Washington School of Social Work targets communities and schools (Hawkins, Catalano, Hill, & Kosterman, 2012; Hawkins, Kosterman, Catalano, Hill, & Abbott, 2008). Evidence-based interventions for those already exhibiting delinquency include ecologically based comprehensive interventions such as multisystemic treatment (Henggeler, Schoenwald, Borduin, Rowland, & Cunningham, 1998). Functional Family Therapy effectively addresses family dynamics involved in delinquency and conduct problems (Alexander & Robbins, 2010). Treatment foster care (Chamberlain, 2002) has established effectiveness for youth needing temporary placement. There is emerging evidence of effectiveness of some juvenile correctional programs, including those involving cognitive processes (Garrido & Morales, 2007). Although the use of evidence-based practice methods and programs is increasing due in part to demands for accountability in program funding and reimbursement, challenges remain in moving research knowledge to practice settings. These challenges include slow dissemination of research-based knowledge and organization barriers such as lack of coordinated systems of care to deliver programs (Hengeller & Schoewald, 2011).

The Role of Social Work

The National Association of Social Workers in a recent report on juvenile justice and delinquency prevention notes that the social work profession “...has a significant stake in advocating for an effective system for dealing with problem juvenile behaviors and makes up a significant part of the workforce that provides services to at-risk youths” (NASW, 2012a, p. 210). Social workers are heavily involved in prevention roles in community-based programs, including in schools. They work with delinquent youth and their families in the mental health service system, as well as public and not-for-profit juvenile offender programs and residential facilities where they intervene with youth and families (Roberts & Springer, 2007). Social workers can positively influence the juvenile justice system for example as researchers, administrators, probation officers, counselors, and intake officers, and in positions where they provide courtroom testimony and court-ordered evaluations for juveniles, or act as expert witnesses (Polowy et al., 2010). In macro-practice roles, they contribute to positive youth development through community developmental, and through community action initiatives. Social work educators also have a role to play in disseminating information on effective intervention practices especially in communities (Hawkins, Shapiro, & Fagan, 2010).

Social workers as researchers have helped to clarify pathways to delinquency (for example, Herrenkohl, Kosterman, Mason, Hawkins, McCarty, & McCauley, 2010; Smith & Thornberry, 1995), and have also developed evidence-based programs to prevent delinquency and aggression by targeting known precursors (Fraser, Day, Galinsky, Hodges, & Smokowski, 2004; Jenson, Dieterich, Brisson, Bender, & Powell, 2010). Research by social work teams has also been influential in delineating service system problems and developing policy recommendations for improved practice in juvenile justice, for example in response to ‘crossover youth’ who are involved in both child welfare and juvenile justice systems (Herz et al., 2010; Jonson-Reid & Barth, 2000)

Knowledge and expertise of social workers in the primary prevention of delinquency is critical to prevent further developmental and behavioral disruption. Social workers can consult the well-developed evidence base on early family intervention (Farringdon & Welsh, 2008). Referral to and advocacy for pre-school programs is important since these have shown a consistent link to reduced delinquency outcomes later in life (Mann & Reynolds, 2006). Once children enter school, this setting becomes critical for delinquency prevention and interruption, and school social workers play major roles in supporting behavioral competence. School social workers can help reduce school-based risk factors such as truancy and school failure through collaborative efforts with other school professionals, community organizations, social services agencies, parents, and school children (NASW, 2012b). Once youth are identified as delinquent, social workers may train for and be involved in implementing specific evidence-based programs discussed above such as, for example, multisystemic treatment (MST, Henggeler et al., 1998). Promising interventions in the juvenile corrections system involving cognitive and self-regulation skills can also be deployed by social workers (for example, Garrido & Morales, 2007).


Juvenile delinquency is one of the most serious and extensive social problems which social workers confront. There has been an explosion of research in recent decades on pathways to delinquency and interventions to prevent and address delinquency. However, challenges to the use of effective interventions include slow dissemination of research-based knowledge and organization barriers such as lack of coordinated systems of care to deliver programs. Additionally, social workers are not currently a strong presence in juvenile justice, which misses a critical opportunity “given that those involved in the criminal and juvenile justice systems are undeniably among the vulnerable and oppressed populations that the profession has traditionally served” (Peters, 2011, p. 355). The recent attention by the profession to the role for social work in juvenile justice and delinquency prevention is notable, and important principles and recommendations are delineated that include services and responses appropriate to youth’s developmental level, race, ethnicity and gender, as well as fair and equal treatment, due process and proper representation for juveniles. There are hopeful directions including increased use of evidence based policies and practices, and system improvements to provide for better assessment and treatment of trauma, and to address the needs of crossover youth.


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