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Though these factors can be an influence on the juvenile's choice to commit a crime, the ultimate cause of the crime was the juvenile's own cost-benefit analysis, according to this model.
A practical exploration of this model can be done using Jacob Ind, one of the five Colorado teenagers sentenced to life in prison without parole in Frontline's documentary, "Kids Who Get Life" (Bikel 2007). Ind was convicted of killing his mother and stepfather after years of sexual abuse. Ind defended himself saying that he did not understand the permanency of murder and just wanted the abuse to end (Bikel 2007). While other models may suggest that the cause of Ind's violent offense was his abuse and his misunderstanding of the consequences of murder, Rational Choice Theory would contend that the abuse and misunderstandings influenced his behavior, although they did not cause it. What caused his behavior, the theory would suggest, is Ind's admitted goal -- that the abuse would end. The theory would hold that Ind considered the murder and found the benefits, no more abuse, outweighing the consequences, dead parents and jail time.
Social Disorganization Theory
While the Rational Choice Theory claims that criminals make rational cost-benefit analyses that result in their crimes, Social Disorganization theory suggests that the culture and society in which the child is brought up has a direct impact on a child's decision to commit a violent crime. Current scholarship supports this argument in a variety of methods, suggesting that everything from parenting, to friendship, to poverty can result in a juvenile violent offender. In fact, in her 1997 study of learning definitions and violent delinquency, Karen Heimer found that "explanations of violent adolescent behavior must take into account the joint contribution of stratification and culture" (799).
For example, in their 2002 study "Juvenile Delinquency Under Conditions of Rapid Social Change," Boehnke and Bergs-Winkles suggest that conditions of rapid social change may lead to other factors that encourage juvenile delinquency. According to the study, rapid social change often throws teens into the arms of their friends and peers, who offer "an endorsement of delinquent behavior," in addition to the "infrastructure" for this behavior (57). As a part of the social disorganization theory, therefore, the study suggests that social factors such as rapid change encourage would-be offenders into situations where they are faced with other social factors, such as peer pressure, that will encourage and provide a means for their delinquency.
One of those conditions of social change that has been proven to impact the juvenile delinquent possibilities of juveniles is socioeconomic change. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, juveniles living under the poverty line have proved to be more involved in delinquency than juveniles who are not impoverished (2006, 7). Although the study contended that poverty does not necessarily have a direct link to juvenile violent offenses, it does tend to produce juveniles who are in single parent homes or who become parents during their adolescent years, both of which are indicators of delinquency.
Drawing on social structure and social learning data, Karen Heimer explored the issue of a connection between socioeconomic status and juvenile violent offenders more extensively in her 1997 study, "Socioeconomic Status, Subcultural Definitions, and Violent Delinquency." Heimer's conclusions suggested that violent delinquency was not directly caused by socioeconomic status, but instead by "learning definitions favorable to violence," which in tern were affected by a great many factors (799). Those factors included not only socioeconomic status, but also association with "aggressive peers," parenting, and previous crimes. Thus, Heimer cast light on the idea that while being impoverished does not necessarily equate becoming a violent criminal, the two are related.
Though Heimer established that parenting and the propensity to become a juvenile offender were, indeed, related, Simons, et al.'s 2001 study expanded on the idea, suggesting that the quality of parenting even through difficult seasons of defiance, and improvements in parenting during the adolescent years, especially those that decrease the adolescent's exposure to other delinquent teens, are indicators of teens who avoid delinquency, while ineffective parenting or a tendency to give in during seasons of defiance was more likely to produce teenagers who associated with other offenders, thus increasing their own likelihood to become violent offenders (63).
Thus, both government and psychological studies have suggested that social factors are major contributors to a juvenile's propensity to become delinquent. From parenting choices to associations to socioeconomic status to the number of family members in the home and teen pregnancy issues, these social factors are largely responsible not just for juvenile delinquency, but also in determining a juvenile's peers. When juveniles associate with delinquent juveniles, these studies have proven that they increase their odds of becoming delinquent themselves. By repairing these social conditions, therefore, the problem of juvenile delinquency may soon be solved.
Two models, the Rational Choice model and the Social Disorganization Theory present different views about the causes of juvenile delinquency, but what both models can agree upon is the importance of social factors in the problem of juvenile delinquency. In fact, even the Rational Choice Theory suggests that, like in the case of Ind's abuse, social causes to impact a person's rational choice to commit a crime. Because both theories can agree that social factors are important impetuses of the problem, a focus on repairing these social conditions makes for the most salient recommendation.
Developing a plan to eradicate poverty, improve parenting, and encourage teens to stay away from nonviolent crimes, however, is not an easy task, nor one that can be undertaken fast enough to solve the problem of juvenile delinquency. It is for this reason that a recommendation toward attitude and education is first necessary. In Heimer's 1997 study, the researcher found that learning patterns associated with violence were indicators of a juvenile who would become a violent offender. By starting programs in school that required juveniles to discuss their feelings and learning styles, identifying those who had a predisposition toward violent attitudes, and allowing them to receive special counseling, some students may be able to avoid becoming violent offenders.
Although this education process would not only increase the amount of students who did not have violent attitudes, but also reduce the number of delinquent students to associate with others, the problem of peer pressure and delinquency must be the next to be addressed. Several studies pointed to the fact that juveniles became delinquent because the associated with other delinquent juveniles. This kind of association could be prevented with both a parent education program and resources provided to juveniles after school and during the weekends that would allow them to associate in positive circles when their parents were working. These programs could be instituted through community organizations like schools, Boys and Girls clubs, and the YMCA.
While the United States continues to hold more juveniles in prison under the sentence of life without the possibility of parole than all other countries, the monumental problem of juvenile violent offenders can still be stopped. By understanding the demographics of the issue, the two competing theories of motivations and the societal causes that increase violent juvenile offenders, and the recommendations inspired by those motivations, criminologists and child psychologists can work together in order to create a lasting solution to the problem.
Boehnke, Klaus and Dagmar Bergs-Winkels. (2002). Juvenile Delinquency Under Conditions of Rapid Social Change. Sociological Forum. 17 (1), 57-79.
Bikel, Ofra. (2007). When Kids Get Life. [Frontline]. Boston: Washington
Hemer, Karen. (1997). Socioeconomic Status, Subcultural Definitions, and Violent
Delinquency. Social Forces. 75 (3), 799-833.
Human Rights Council (2006). Juvenile Sentencing. (4th Session). Berkley: Connie de la
Vega and Nicole Skibola.
Keel, Robert O. (2005). Rational Choice and Deterrence Theory. Retrieved July 1, 2008,…[continue]
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