Juvenile Delinquency and Threat of Punishment

Living insecurely in their little insular worlds, most juveniles are fueled by their selfish, self-centered desires. Even with experience as their best teacher, juveniles often feel superhuman and invincible, at least until the worst of all possible scenarios happens to them. Typical of youth, such unbridled and extravagant thinking causes juveniles to feel practically untouchable by the long arm of the law. As personal perceptions make a person’s reality what it is, the perceptions of juveniles, no matter how warped, lead them to take risks that mature, responsible adults would not dare take under normal circumstances.

Normally guided by an innate sense of right and wrong, most juveniles are compelled to do the right thing. When they do not, the guilt and shame associated with deviant behavior can become overwhelming. The delinquents, however, seem to be unburdened by guilt, indifferent to a moral code, and inclined to pursue distorted, often dangerous ideals. Until law enforcement intervenes and the judicial system imposes punishment for illegal behavior, juvenile offenders (whether labeled as such or not) may feel frankly and unjustifiably immune to punishment, unless the adults in their lives take responsibility for administering it.

Threats of punishment are mild, fleeting thoughts, usually undaunting until the juvenile offender experiences them firsthand. Threats of legal ramifications do not even seem real to the juveniles who commit the crimes. Sadly and tragically, errant juveniles commonly even accept the idea of going to prison, as if it was a rite of passage, expected as naturally in life as marriage and children. Juveniles learn what is and what is not acceptable behavior from parents, guardians, peers, mentors, and role models.

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In addition, if those human examples have produced less than desirable behavior and failed socially or economically in the world, ill will and hostile feelings will be spawned in the juveniles who mirror them. They become angry young people with twisted missions — poorly chosen goals, grudges, and personal vendettas. Empirical data has constructed the delinquency curve, which is well known in the field of criminology. The curve starts at about age 12, spikes rapidly at age 16, then declines and tapers off in the early twenties, when the delinquents begin to be caught nd seriously punished for their crimes (Collins and Coltrane, 1991, p. 607). It can be rightly inferred that the law, specifically the judicial system, gets serious with petty juvenile offenders when they crossover into early adulthood. At that point, the severity of the punishment begins its alignment with the severity of the crime. The only crimes that can be controlled effectively with general deterrence are the basically innocuous ones, such as traffic tickets and other citations for speeding, jaywalking, etc.

In what cases is general deterrence usually effective? The answer is directly linked to the personal assets of the juvenile offender, whether money or some privilege, such as a cell phone that may be confiscated for bad behavior. The bottom line is the juveniles are swayed in these cases because it the punishment hits them “where it hurts the most,” in their purses and in their booty of prized possessions. Losing these things, their personal treasures, is a far greater deterrent for juvenile offenders than threatening to send an angry, young offender to prison.

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After all, most juvenile offenders are looking for a way out of their troubled lives at home anyway. The best method for controlling juvenile crime is to practice specific deterrence by: a) giving first offenders a break but with a taste of jail, at least 30 days of confinement and b) not coddling or treating juvenile recidivists with kid gloves. Granted root causes and conditions must be discovered, disclosed, and treated (often with expensive, extensive psychotherapy).

However, after a treatment program is in place, juvenile offenders must accept some responsibility for their own recovery and rehabilitation. If criminal behavior ensues, then less tolerance with harsher sentences must be implemented. Giving numerous chances only sends the distorted message that a life of crime is OK, when it is certainly not. The juveniles must be guided into an earnest and heartfelt desire to do better, achieve more, become someone respectable.

Specific deterrence, wherein the punishment meets the severity of the sentence, makes good sense, but only after a first offense has been forgiven. The obvious exceptions are the juvenile offenders who are violent. They are a special breed requiring equally special punishment and treatment. However, cookie-cutter, textbook-type juvenile offenders usually learn the hard way: trial and error. Criminal behaviors will yield certain consequences, with no exceptions or last-minute leniency. Finally, situational crime prevention activities do indeed sound like proactive ways to prevent crime.

In reality though, the entire world cannot be made crime-proof to compensate for the moral deficiencies and deviant (illegal) behaviors of juvenile offenders, which constitute a growing but relatively small cross-section of society. Society as a whole cannot afford to make concessions that appear to condone criminal behavior, regardless of the age of the criminal. References Collins, R. & Coltrane, S. (1992). Sociology of marriage and the family: Gender, love, and property (3rd ed. ). Chicago: Nelson-Hall.

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