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Juvenile Delinquency

Family Structure, Community, Conclusion


Society places a heavy burden on families by assigning responsibility for childrearing to parents. Families must transmit values so as to lead children to accept rules that they are likely to perceive as arbitrary. It should be no surprise, therefore, to find that family life bears a strong relation to juvenile delinquency.

Family life can be viewed from three general perspectives. The first is structure: Who lives within a household? The second is interaction: How do the family members treat one another? And the third is social setting: What is the nature of the community in which the family can be found? Each of these perspectives contributes information relevant to understanding the impact of family life on juvenile delinquency.

Juvenile delinquency is defined differently in different cultures, and responses to juvenile delinquents differ also. For example, in Germany, assault is considered a violent crime only if a weapon is used during the commission of the crime, whereas in England and Wales, the degree of injury to the victim determines whether or not an assault is considered a violent crime. Crime is also measured differently in different countries. For example, the United States and Great Britain commonly rely on numbers of arrests to measure crime. In Germany, Austria, and Italy, crime is measured by the number of cases solved by police, whether or not the offender has been apprehended. Although rates for property crimes are higher in Canada, England and Wales, and the Netherlands than in the United States, in comparison with other Western countries, the United States has a higher rate for violent crimes committed by juveniles. The Federal Bureau of Investigation reported an arrest rate for violent crimes (aggravated assault, robbery, and rape) among thirteen- to seventeen-year-olds in the United States of nearly 800 per 100,000 in 1994. In the same year, in England and Wales, approximately 600 per 100,000 fourteen- to sixteen-year-olds were convicted or cautioned by the police for violent crimes. In Germany, 650 per 100,000 fourteen- to seventeen-year-olds, and in the Netherlands, 450 per 100,000 twelve- to seventeen-year-olds were suspects for violent crimes in 1994 (Pfeiffer 1998).

Comparing how countries deal with juvenile offenders presents a challenge because countries differ in the ages during which young people are considered legal juveniles, in the types of institution used to sanction juvenile offenders, and in the sanctions available for them. In Switzerland, for example, a child as young as seven can have criminal responsibility as determined through special juvenile courts. In Belgium, a child under the age of sixteen would not be held criminally responsible for any action and under the age of eighteen could not be incarcerated. In Japan, criminal responsibility can begin at age fourteen, but full criminal responsibility is not assumed until the age of twenty. In New Zealand, since 1989, Family Group Conferences have been used to replace or supplement youth courts for serious criminal cases. In the Netherlands, an offender can be charged as a juvenile between the ages of twelve and eighteen and can be given a lifetime sentence. Sweden and Denmark have no juvenile courts, and juveniles under the age of fifteen in Denmark may not be punished, although they may be referred to a social welfare agency. In the United States, states differ regarding the ages for partial and full criminal responsibility. Most states stipulate no minimum age. Some states grant full criminal responsibility at age fifteen, almost a dozen consider an offender an adult at age sixteen, and the remaining states give full criminal responsibility to an offender after the age of seventeen. Although many jurisdictions in the United States permit capital punishment for juveniles, few other countries allow the execution of minors.

Most research focused on identifying how socialization practices affect the behavior of children has been carried out in the United States. There are, however, some relevant studies about the impact of socialization practices in Great Britain, Scandinavia, Japan, Colombia, and the Netherlands.

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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Social Issues