Youth Crime in America: A Modern Synthesis

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9780130261847: Youth Crime in America: A Modern Synthesis

This new book introduces readers to the latest developments in delinquency theory and research by providing a clear, jargon-free, in-depth treatment of the most recent and significant writings in the field. It provides wide coverage of youth crime, delinquency, and the justice system without overwhelming readers with dual and often confusing statements. Streamlined and easily readable, Youth Crime in America covers such topics as: social issues and youth crime; official data and victim surveys; American adolescence today; theories of youth crime; Chicago School and strain/anomie theories; social control and sensation seeking; the family and youth crime; schools; peers; the police; the juvenile court system; and corrections and prevention. A useful guide for those in the youth criminal justice system, as well as educators, therapists, and others that work with adolescents.

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Youth Crime in America: A Modern Synthesis introduces students to the latest developments in delinquency, theory, and research. This book provides the student with a clear, jargon-free, in-depth understanding of the most recent and most significant writings in the field. The focus is on the newer theories and prevention methods rather than the dated ones. New ideas, be they absorbing or disturbing, fascinate readers-they help to keep the mind alive.

Distinguishing Features Include:
  • Chapter One closely examines how youth crime has been dealt in mass communication and how this treatment has affected public opinion and political rhetoric on youth crime.
  • Chapter Three is devoted to the general topic of American adolescence today, including the significance of pubertal timing, parental reactions, and the adolescent subculture.
  • Chapter Twelve discusses in detail eleven treatment programs that work, such as nurse home visitations; the incredible years, and functional family therapy This introduces students to the best programs.

This text provides wide coverage of youth crime, delinquency, and the justice system without overwhelming the student.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Thomas Carlyle long ago described economics as the dismal science. There is some question about what he had in mind when he used this unflattering term. One line of argument is that the dour Scot was accusing the field of being boring, confusing, and contradictory, its paragraphs bogged down in "on the one hand, on the other hand" kinds of statements. Economics does not stand alone in this respect. For instance, there have been times when crime and delinquency texts, too, relied on these techniques, which students find puzzling and off-putting.

Here I try to (1) avoid opaque writing and (2) engage students in a lively conversation about youth crime, its nature, causes, and attempts at control. The focus is on newer theories and prevention methods, not the dated ones that would be rejected by most sociologists and psychologists. Some of the newer approaches may be controversial, but academics who are worth their salt do not shy away from controversy. New ideas, be they absorbing or disturbing, fascinate readers—they help to keep the mind alive.

How do Americans typically acquire their views about crime and delinquency? In most cases, it's not from textbooks, because that would mean they had to make the trek to some perhaps far-off university's bookstore. Instead, as a rule, they rely on sources closer to home and easier to access: the many crime stories appearing in the newspaper or on television news programs. Unfortunately, these reports are usually lean on information and barren of analysis. Rules of objectivity force reporters to isolate crimes and treat each as a sample of one; the rules virtually forbid generalizing to the wider picture. Reading about someone being mugged in a subway, we don't know whether this means that subways are becoming more dangerous or less. News reporters hug the shoreline; that is, they take great pains to present small details and rudimentary facts while paying scant attention to the larger picture.

On the other hand, weekly magazines go far beyond these narrow particulars, far beyond perfunctory findings by the police. They delve into wider issues, look at the crime picture in general, and do not hesitate to make sweeping conclusions. In the mid-1990s, they focused on crimes committed by young people, arguing that their rates of violence were rapidly rising at that time and promised to get far worse in the next few years.

The views developed by writers in these mass market magazines were more than mere exercises; they influenced America's thinking and policy regarding youth crime. They reinforced public attitudes and opinion about the danger posed by out-of-control youth. They also pushed political officeholders and office seekers into drumming up support for harsher treatment of underage offenders. Soon, political rhetoric poured forth about the need for more punishment, longer sentences, tougher courts, less lenience, and less talk of rehabilitation.

If Americans derive much of their information about crime and delinquency from the media (such as the newsmagazines), how valid are the claims these media make—should they be taken as gospel or with a grain of salt? Criminologists have developed several ways of producing data bearing on the basic questions: official data, self-report data, and victimization surveys. These data te1L us, for instance, how old most offenders are, whether they are male or female, what their race or ethnicity is, where the offenses are most likely to occur, and (in some research) why the offenders committed the offenses. These findings can then be used to test the many claims made by the news media or politicians or criminological theories. Eventually, if the claims are overstated or the theories are misguided, this will be revealed.

Because our interest lies in the crimes committed by adolescents, a specific domain, we need to spend some time investigating the larger terrain of adolescence to determine what is known about that particular stage of growth. Most of this territory has been staked out by psychologists, but a few biological and sociological factors have also been studied. Biological factors have been thought important because adolescence begins with a series of sometimes dramatic biological changes in height, weight, musculature, and secondary sexual characteristics. Early theorists said this period was inevitably a time of storm and stress, even of temporary psychosis. More recent work has focused on the impact of pubertal timing to find out if early maturation leads to psychological problems and deviant behavior. Sociologists began to examine the adolescent subculture to determine if the rise of peer influence and the declining impact of parents created problems of a different sort for teens.

Criminologists take great delight in devising answers to the question: Why do they do it (why do people commit crime)? At first, centuries ago, religious people explained criminal behavior by referring to the supernatural; later, philosophers created the classical school, which focused on free will and the rational pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain. After that, the early positivists (especially Lombroso) introduced the notion of biological forces acting on people to push or pull them toward criminal activity. Much of that literature is now of only antiquarian interest.

More important in the modern world is the work of evolutionary psychologists, who have pointed out how Darwin's theory of evolution applies to the everyday behavior of men and women in the present day. To be sure, most of this work does not focus on crime, but a small subsection does, including the contributions of Daly and Wilson on homicide and Thornhill and Palmer on rape. This provocative work may never become part of mainstream criminology, but a student of human behavior needs, at the very least, to be familiar with it.

Like evolutionary psychology, behavioral genetics offers another challenge to the view that human beings are a blank slate that society writes its cultural instructions on. But in this case, the challenge comes in the form of quantitative findings, not some new theory. Behavioral geneticists study personality, IQ, and sometimes even criminality, always with the same purpose in mind: to divide the influences on these into environmental and genetic. In recent years, they have devised a new method for doing so: They study twins (identical and fraternal) who were separated at birth and raised apart.

The sociological theories of crime and delinquency burst into prominence with the rise of the University of Chicago and its department of sociology. Shaw and McKay were more empiricists than theorists, but they emphasized the group nature of delinquency, the importance of neighborhood conditions, and crime as a tradition one generation passed to the next. Next, Edwin Sutherland theorized that crime was learned in interaction within intimate groups, as people taught each other attitudes toward crime and techniques of offending. The attitudes that were learned by the pupils were then taken to heart and acted out.

At the same time that Sutherland was polishing his differential association theory, Robert Merton was creating his strain/anomie approach, which stressed American culture's worship of wealth and the social structure's obstacles to achieving it through legitimate channels such as education, a steady job, and saving money. For some people, this contradiction led to innovation, that is, pursuing wealth through moneymaking crimes. Like Sutherland's theory, Merton's became immensely popular with students, who embraced it despite the fact that the most pertinent evidence cast grave doubts over it.

Albert Cohen drew from both Sutherland and Merton in his theory of status frustration. He argued that many lower-class parents failed to prepare their sons to live up to middle-class norms and values such as achievement, individual responsibility, good manners, and respect for property. Once these boys entered school, they were evaluated by the teachers and other students. Boys who failed to live up to the middle-class norms were looked down upon. These boys then got together and formed an adolescent subsculture, which featured exactly the opposite of the culture's rules. That is, lack of achievement, bad manners, contempt for others' property, and so on.

Cloward and Ohlin also tried to combine some elements of both strain and Chicago School theories. They carried on the notion of adolescent subculture introduced by Cohen but said there were three, not one. The criminal subculture emerged in communities that were organized; that is, there were successful adult criminals who passed on their know-how to the younger generation. In disorganized slums, there were no successful criminals or opportunities to make much money (legally or illegally), so boys were frustrated and turned to violence to vent their feelings and gain a measure of respect.

Travis Hirschi in 1969 wrote Causes of Delinquency, which challenged both differential association and strain theories. This was the beginning of strain theory's fall from grace, although later theorists would try to revive it. Hirschi also introduced his version of social control theory, a viewpoint that said people would naturally gravitate toward crime and delinquency if it weren't for obstacles such as attachment (to family, school, and peers), commitment to conventional lines of action, involvement in conventional activities, and belief in the moral validity of conventional norms. This kind of thinking went against the grain in the late 1960s, for labeling and radical theories were riding high at the time. But eventually it caught on, because the data seemed to support it.

Aside from social control theory, sociological theories have given more attention to peers than to family members (this is especially true of differential association). On the other hand, psychologists have sometimes made the family their focus. Diana Baumrind identified three parenting styles that she said had different impacts on children. The authoritative style led to mature, well-behaved youngsters. The authoritarian style cowed them into obedience for the most part but stunted their imagination, learning, and social development. Permissive parenting led to all kinds of deviance, because parents failed to exert the necessary controls over their offspring.

Judith Rich Harris originally accepted this orthodox view but later came to question it. She argued that correlations from developmental psychology are ambiguous; they could be due to parent effects, genetic effects, or children effects on parents. She says doubts about parent effects are raised by several findings:

  1. Children without siblings bear the full brunt of parental influence, yet they seem no different than children with siblings.
  2. Children who start day care almost immediately seem no different than children who spent their first three years at home with parents.
  3. Children of immigrants end up speaking English without a foreign accent, even if they continue to speak their parents' language at home.

In the school arena, many reports and parents have expressed dismay with our current educational system; they suspect that teachers are making only feeble efforts to teach, and students are committed to avoiding learning if at all possible. There are some indications that disorder prevails in urban public schools, and that students are disengaged. Many theories have been proposed to account for students' failure to thrive academically and to behave appropriately in school. Copperman attributes this to the loss of teacher authority, Greenberg blames it on teachers' being too authoritarian, labeling theorists lay the responsibility on tracking, Hirschi says it starts with low IQ and disliking school, whereas a more recent view says some students are naturally sensation seekers.

The contribution of peers to youth crime has long been a staple of sociological criminology. Shaw and McKay contributed to this line of thought by emphasizing that children early on began by playing together; eventually, their innocent pastime grew into something more risky and serious. Males in particular were drawn to these kinds of collective activities. Girls were less apt to join delinquent gangs and more likely to drop out of such groups once they grew older, got married, or had children.

In many cases, children in their early years at school are rejected by their peers if they act in a particularly aggressive manner. This kind of behavior does not simply appear out of the blue, but constitutes a continuing pattern learned or at least reinforced by family life in the years before the child attends school. Once the child has been rejected at school by most of his prosocial fellow students, he turns to other aggressive /rejected mates for companionship. They then become more aggressive than they were, as each boy encourages the others to engage in increasingly outrageous feats of deviance and rebellion (according to Thomas Dishion).

In the juvenile justice system, the three main elements are the police, courts, and corrections. The police were never designed to deal with problems of youth, which were traditionally viewed as relatively minor if not insignificant. The macho image of the police encouraged them to focus on more serious, more dangerous, older offenders, whose capture and arrest brought the officer praise and respect from his fellow officers for a difficult job well done. Arresting a youngster might bring instead a few snickers or derisive laughter.

The police are generally looked on favorably by the public as a whole. Despite this, they are often regarded with disdain by younger people and by African Americans. The negative attitudes are more evident among individuals who are delinquent and have frequent police encounters. Sociologists have shown special interest in juvenile demeanor and the police response during their encounters. Black and Reiss found that complainants play an important role; what they want done with the suspect, police usually do.

There has been a punitive trend in recent decades in America, as more and more people call for a crackdown on serious violent juvenile offenders. Where this pressure has been felt the most is in the courts. Increasingly, legislatures have been insisting that serious offenses be tried in the criminal courts, which are widely assumed to be more retributive than the juvenile courts, which are regarded as excessively lenient and devoted to rehabilitation.

The punitive trend has spread to the next phase of the juvenile justice system: corrections. Lawmakers have expressed enthusiasm for panaceas, such as scared straight and boot camps, and more and longer sentences to more secure institutions. Legislatures have not shown nearly as much interest in programs of prevention, perhaps because so little is known about them. Nevertheless, among the hundreds of prevention programs mounted in recent years, some have proven to be quite successful. Chapter 12 covers these in detail.

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