A Look at Juvenile Delinquency: Prevention, Treatment, and Risk Assessment
Juvenile delinquency is a persistent issue that exists among virtually every community within the United States. Some communities are plagued by higher rates of juvenile delinquency while other communities may have less frequent instances of juvenile crime. The severity may also vary from one community to the next. There are a number of factors that influence juvenile delinquency. Often times there are risk factors that may influence the probability of a child and/or adolescent engaging in juvenile delinquent behavior. Factors that may increase the risk of juvenile delinquency include things like aggressiveness, peer influence, history of family violence or abuse and so on. While there are many other factors that can lead to juvenile delinquent behaviors and tendencies, the importance of implementing treatment and prevention programs is just as important as understanding the factors that can provoke juvenile delinquent behavior.
Risk factors must be taken into consideration when developing prevention and treatment programs that will effectively address the juvenile delinquency issues within the United States. According to The North Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (2011), there are five domains that exist which contribute to juvenile delinquency. These domains include: individual characteristics, family influences, school experiences, negative peer group influences, and neighborhood and community risks. Individual characteristics that can increase the risk of juvenile delinquency include antisocial behaviors and rebelliousness. Family influences such as a history of physical or sexual abuse, frequent fighting and conflict between parents, lack of supervision, and ineffective discipline are all contributing factors to juvenile delinquency. Youth who have difficulty when it comes to academics in school or frequently skip and/or miss school are also a higher risk of participating in juvenile activity. Negative peer influences (peer pressure) may also contribute to juvenile delinquency, especially when these peers also participate in juvenile delinquent behaviors or encourage such behaviors. Peer influences also include gang involvement, which is a significant factor in juvenile crime. Neighborhood and community risks include factors such as high crime rates, common substance abuse issues within the community, and community norms that may not effectively deter youth from participating in juvenile delinquency (The North Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2011).
Effective Prevention and Intervention Programs
The first step in addressing any issue is to focus on prevention. An effective prevention program is the first and most important step that needs to be taken to help decrease the rising concern of juvenile delinquency. Prevention programs should be conducive to the risk factors that are present in regards to juvenile delinquency if they are to decrease the rate of juvenile delinquent behavior throughout the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Justice (2003, p.9), “Most juvenile justice, child welfare, and school resources currently focus on adolescent juvenile offenders and problem children whose behaviors are already persistent….rather than on children in elementary schools or preschools.” While focusing on current juvenile delinquency behaviors and targeting youth who have already begun engaging in delinquent behavior is a must, it is also imperative to implement prevention programs in an effort to deter at risk youth from engaging in juvenile delinquency before it starts as well.
One program in particular that is effective in preventing juvenile delinquency is the PINS (Persons in Need of Supervision) program (in New York). This is a diversion program for youth between the ages of 9 and 18 who have exhibited any of the aforementioned risk factors. The PINS programs “focus on helping families develop the skills needed to cope with the stresses — including poverty, substance use, domestic violence and other intractable problems — that many PINS children and their families face” (The Children’s Aid Society, 2011, para.1). When a youth is referred to the PINS program, they are assigned a primary “officer” (which is often probation officers) who makes frequent visits to the home as well as the school to ensure that the youth’s behavior is not out of control. Most states within the United States have such programs, however many families do not know that they exist or how to take advantage of such programs. Educating families about the programs available to them and their youth will make prevention of juvenile delinquency much more successful. PINS and other similar programs are effective tools in the fight against juvenile delinquency because these programs focus on early intervention to prevent at risk youth from becoming frequent juvenile delinquent offenders. The success of such programs will be maximized if awareness is raised among higher risk communities. One possible approach would be community outreach programs and parenting education programs that assist parents in the process of filing petitions for programs such as PINS.
Numerous intervention programs exist which are aimed at addressing juvenile delinquency. While most of these programs focus on the youth(s) engaging in delinquent behavior, few intervention programs are aimed at parenting issues that may have contributed to delinquent behavior displayed by youth. Family preservation and parenting education programs for parents of juvenile delinquents might help to bridge this particular gap and may also help better prepare parents to deal with juvenile delinquent behaviors.
Residential Treatment Centers (RTCs) are another viable option for decreasing juvenile delinquency. American Association of Children’s Residential Centers is (AACRC) an organization which focuses on, “mental health treatment, other than acute inpatient care, in conjunction with residential care for seriously emotionally disturbed children and youth, ages 17 and younger” (American Association of Children’s Residential Centers, 2011). These treatment centers are for youth who have been determined as unable to be cared for in foster care settings, day treatment programs, or other non-secure environments due to severe psychiatric or substance abuse problems. RTCs offer an effective alternative secure environment for youth who have not been admitted to psychiatric hospitals or correctional facilities because their behaviors have not yet elevated to meet the criteria to be admitted to such facilities. The youth who are admitted to RTCs are provided with 24 hour supervision and a highly structured environment which utilizes programs that focus on both mental health and substance abuse issues to address juvenile delinquent behavior. RTCs differ from traditional group homes in that they focus on providing therapeutic treatment services while group homes typically only provide residents with basic needs (food, shelter, and daily living skills) but do not offer programs that will help address the risk factors contributing to juvenile delinquent behaviors (American Association of Children’s Residential Centers, 2011).
Ineffective Treatment and Prevention Programs
Ineffective treatment and prevention programs are programs which do not contribute to the decrease in juvenile delinquency rates within the United States. One particular program which has been ineffective in the treatment and prevention of juvenile delinquency is the “scared straight” programs which have become increasingly popular since the T.V. show “Scared Straight” has been aired. Not only are these programs ineffective, but they are highly controversial. Scared Straight programs allow adult inmates to have direct contact with juvenile delinquents. These juveniles are exposed to the harsh and intimidating conditions associated with being in jail through sight and sound contact with inmates as well as jail tours. The goal of such programs is to improve youth’s behaviors by shocking or scaring them in an effort to deter them from engaging in delinquent behaviors. The outcomes of these programs have proven unsuccessful, and, in fact, “studies have demonstrated that Scared Straight Programs are ineffective in preventing delinquent behavior, and there is evidence that participation in Scared Straight Programs may actually contribute toward increased delinquency” (Schembri, 2011, p.13).
Another ineffective approach to treatment and prevention of juvenile delinquency is disregarding gender influences that contribute to risk factors in juvenile delinquent behaviors. Not all programs recognize the different contributing factors that exist between males and females and tend to group them into one category when creating treatment and prevention programs, which can lead to ineffective programs that do not help decrease juvenile delinquency because they are not gender specific enough to make a significant difference.
Additionally, another approach that can lead to an ineffective treatment for prevention program is not considering cultural diversity in regards to juvenile delinquency. Race, ethnicity, religion, and even socioeconomic status can vary when it comes to risk factors that contribute to juvenile delinquent behaviors. All programs should take these cultural variations into account in order to provide effective treatment to juveniles who are at higher risk of exhibiting delinquent behaviors.
While there are many approaches to treatment and prevention of juvenile delinquency, not all approaches are as effective as others. The key to developing an effective program to address juvenile delinquency is to address the entire family unit, consider cultural variations and gender differences, and take into account the risk factors that contribute to juvenile delinquent behaviors. If all of these components are included in the development of a treatment/prevention program, it will be more likely to decrease the rates of juvenile delinquency. As society changes, so will the factors that contribute to juvenile delinquency. Programs will need to continue to evolve to reflect these societal changes in order to remain effective. A program that is effective now may not be effective five, or even ten years from now.
American Association of Children’s Residential Centers. 2011. Web. 28 December 2011.
The Children’s Aid Society. 2011. Web. 23 December 2011.
U.S. Department of Justice. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. 2003. Web. 22 December 2011.