Delinquency occurs in every country in the world. In many countries, delinquency first arose as a distinct problem in the late nineteenth century. In Germany, juvenile crime was first distinguished from adult crime in 1871 and in Britain in 1908. The United States' first JUVENILE COURT was established in 1899.

Delinquency and Society

As a social problem, delinquency came into being with ADOLESCENCE itself. As Western societies prolonged childhood dependency and postponed the age of expected independence through the second half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, problems specific to the period of prolonged childhood emerged. In a rural, peasant society, for example, a fifteen-year-old boy missing school was not greeted with official opprobrium; a sixteen-year-old girl who was becoming sexually active might be rushed into marriage, not into court.

No matter the time period, delinquency is often closely tied to poverty and to the degree of difference between the rich and the poor in a society. In addition, delinquency is a

A still from the movie Boys Town (1938). Methods of dealing with delinquent children have become more punitive in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, making a change from the paternalistic approach represented by Spencer Tracy's (admittedly idealized) Father Flanagan. .

symptom of larger disruptions to tradition. Public concern for, and even panic over, delinquency peaks when major social patterns are changing. The first real attention to delinquency in the United States occurred in the 1880s and 1890s, for example, a time of rapid urbanization, massive immigration, and major shifts in labor patterns and the workplace. More recently, scholars focused on ethnic and racial difference as indicated by youth crime during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s.

Scholars in eastern Europe have understood youth crime as an indicator of the breakdown of traditional authority resulting from the disruptions associated with the fall of the Soviet Union and the instability of succeeding political and economic regimes. In western Europe, two trends have emerged. Some countries, including Great Britain, Germany, and Finland, have witnessed a constantly increasing amount of juvenile crime from 1950 to 2000. Others, including Austria, Switzerland, and the Scandinavian countries, saw a sharp rise in juvenile crime from 1950 to about 1970, with a leveling-off occurring after 1970. On the other hand, all European countries have seen an increase in juvenile violent crime since 1950, with marked upward trends during the 1980s and 1990s. While adult crime rates stayed steady, rising juvenile violent crime rates mirrored rising unemployment and poverty rates. The most recent statistics, for 1995 through 2000, show a slight increase in juvenile violent crime in Germany, a slight decrease in Great Britain, and a significant increase in France, especially in sexual assaults by juveniles.

In South Africa, juvenile crime in the period from 1948 to 1994 was associated with apartheid, resistance to apartheid, and with the divide between blacks and whites in income, housing, and education. Since the new government came to power there in 1994, it has tried to address youth crime by instituting socioeconomic change and by revising the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, reliable information on the results of these efforts is difficult to find.

Definitions of Delinquency

The Oxford English Dictionary defines delinquency as the condition or quality of being a delinquent; delinquent means "failing in duty or obligation; one guilty of an offence against the law." Juvenile delinquency is the term used to denote any offense against the law performed by a youth under a certain age. In many countries, that age is eighteen, but it varies across the globe.

In the United States, police may charge a youth with delinquency when he or she is alleged to have committed a crime. In addition, juveniles may be charged when they have committed a "status offense," a violation of a specific restriction that applies to people under a certain age, such as breaking a curfew.

Delinquency and its definitions have changed over time. Scholars have found that girls and boys are apprehended for different offenses. In addition, what constitutes delinquency has changed over time.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century United States, boys and girls were most often charged with crimes far different from those they are charged with early in the twenty-first century. Delinquent boys were primarily charged with property offenses, such as stealing copper pipes to sell to junkmen. In the same period, girls were mainly charged with status offenses, such as incorrigibility or running away–terms that often masked sexual activity. Boys were rarely charged with such crimes. In the early twenty-first century, both girls and boys have been charged more often with violent crime than they were in 1900, although property theft is still the largest category for boys charged with delinquency. What was once considered an offense–frequenting dance halls, for example–is often not considered a crime at all today. On the other hand, crimes related to the drug trade and the easy availability of weapons are much more prevalent than at the turn of the last century.

A surge of violent youth crime in the United States took place in the 1980s and was closely tied to a new wave of DRUGS on the streets. During the 1980s and 1990s, more children under age twelve were committing violent acts than before. Between 1980 and 1995, arrests for violent crime doubled for youths aged twelve or younger. From 1980 to 1995, the number of arrests for forcible rape were up 190 percent for juveniles under twelve and arrests for carrying or possessing weapons were up 206 percent. African-American juveniles were arrested disproportionately compared to their numbers in the population. In 1995, African-American children represented about 15 percent of the U.S. youth population but accounted for nearly 50 percent of all arrests for violent crime. The government responded to the dramatic increase in juvenile crime with a host of punitive measures: reducing the age at which an adolescent can be considered an adult and tried in adult court; creating new military-style "boot camp" programs; sentencing juveniles to longer periods of incarceration and stricter oversight. The number of adolescents incarcerated skyrocketed. After 1994, violent youth crime decreased, but property crime did not decrease proportionately. Female violent crime, moreover, did not decrease at the same rate as that for males. It is unclear whether the decrease in violent juvenile crime was a result of new policies, a decline in crack cocaine use, federal efforts to control the distribution of guns, community and school prevention programs, or some combination of these factors.

Responses to Delinquency

At bottom, the governmental response to delinquency is inherently repressive, relying on the coercive power of the state and the threat of incarceration. During the 1960s and 1970s, both the United States and Great Britain saw a more anti-institutional approach hold sway, with a greater focus on welfare, probation, and supervision, but now both countries have returned to a more punitive method of dealing with delinquent youth.

Researchers have spent decades examining juvenile delinquents and their offenses. Time and again, they come up against the difficult question posed by any study of crime: why did this particular person and not another commit a crime? Was the cause of his of her delinquency physical, medical, psychological, social, or something else entirely? Cross-cultural comparisons of delinquents have pointed to useful facts: that where family power breaks down and when traditions lose their grip, one is most likely to find delinquent behavior. In-depth studies of certain delinquent groups have also pointed to the growth of an alternative family structure in gangs and to a growing tradition of rootlessness and violence. For many youth, there is no tradition but violence and aimlessness. Some investigators have found that delinquency increases during wartime because of this rootlessness; others find that wartime employment means lower rates of delinquency.


It is impossible to discuss delinquency as though it is the same the world over, but important patterns can be distinguished. Delinquency is often seen as a social problem, a symptom of a deeper social malaise. When societies undergo long periods of upheaval, official attention is focused on delinquency and youth behavior. Even though delinquency goes through periods of increase and decrease, it never disappears altogether. Governments and social agencies also go through periods of increased or decreased effort in dealing with delinquency, swinging back and forth between repressive and less restrictive measures.

See also: Children's Rights; Homeless Children and Runaways in the United States; Juvenile Justice; Youth Gangs.


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