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The Theories And Factors Of Youth Crime

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What differences makes a ‘normal’ child into a child who commits a crime? This is a difficult question to answer as there is not one ‘cause’ of crime. Crime changes across cultures and across time and eras meaning it a highly complex phenomenon to solve the reason it occurs. One action that is legal in one country, for example, alcohol consumption in the UK over the age of 18 is legal but in strict Muslim countries this is illegal. As a result, the question ‘what is crime?’ has no simple answer and therefore not one answer could explain ‘what causes crime?’ Within this essay three theories of youth crime will be discussed, the strain theory, the labelling theory and social control theory. A discussion of these theories and how they can explain causes of crime and deviant behaviour from youths will be given. In the UK there is not a single law that defines the age of a child. Found in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), Article 1 states that ‘a child means every human being bellow the age of eighteen years unless under the law applicable to the child’ (, 1989)

The first theory of focus will be strain theories, particularly from the work of Robert Merton, he argued that there are established pathways to success and social goals, however within an unequal society not all individuals have the same opportunities to grasp these goals. Meaning when these ‘goals’ are constrained and cannot be reached using legitimate means, such as education and work, crime is seen as an outcome to achieve these socially valued goals. This concept of imbalance between cultural goals and institutionalised was termed ‘anomie’. He argued that an imbalanced society manufactures this anomie and strain therefore occurs between the goals and means, producing unsatisfied aspirations. Merton’s theory suggests when faced with strain, people have five ways to adapt: Conformity, this is pursuing goals through socially approved means; Innovation, this is using socially unapproved or unconventional means to obtain goals, for example, stealing or drug dealing to accomplish financial security; Ritualism, using socially approved means but to achieve more modest and humble; Retreatism; rejecting social goals and means, dropping out of society and Rebellion; reject societies goals and means, create their own, for example, setting up a gang.

Although, Merton’s strain theory assumes everyone has the same opportunities within their upbringing and throughout their life. His theory ignores aspects of class, gender and ethnicity and the effects of these on peoples opportunities, and that not everyone will have same goals or start with the same goals and work to the same end goals. Merton also only looks at economic growth, and didn’t consider that all crime is utilitarian, for example terrorism acts, making somewhere with graffiti, and domestic violence are crimes that do not have any financial benefits.

Merton’s theory provided groundwork for a further theory of delinquency; Sub Cultural Theories, such as Albert Cohen’s work on status frustration. Cohen suggested that lower class youth experience problems trying to fulfil middle-class standards, which can lead to status frustration and the formation of delinquent subcultures. Those struggling will find others who feel similar and from an anti-school subcultures, to overcome status frustration together, however, this often leads to petty crimes being committed due to boredom. Members of these groups committing these petty crimes leads to ‘success’ and a status over the other group members creating a hierarchy.

A strength of Cohen’s theory is that it provides an explanation of non-utilitarian crime, and working class delinquency as a group, not individuals. Conversely, Cohen’s suggestion of delinquent subcultures members consciously invert the norms and values of mainstream society has been criticised. When someone decides to destroy and vandalise a car for example, it seems unlikely that before committing the crime their only thoughts are that mainstream society would consider it to be unacceptable, and praiseworthy in their subculture. An opposing argument by Lyng, a post-modern sociologists, suggests that the criminal individual is influenced by boredom or seeking of a thrill/buzz.

Cloward and Ohlin (1960) argued that criminal subcultures develop in lower working class neighbourhoods where youth and juvenile gang role models come from observing and associating with successful criminals. Cloward and Ohlin suggested that these certain varied circumstances in which working class youth live, give rise to three types of delinquent subcultures: Crime Subcultures; characterised by utilitarian crime. These are crimes that which gain the individual status and love/support. Members of these crime subcultures are often abandoned at a young age, and they arise in a neighbourhood where unemployment is high, as well as is crime figures; Conflict Subcultures, these are gangs organised by the young people themselves, often based around claiming territory from other gangs, known as ‘turf wars’. A higher population turnover results in higher levels of social disorganisation preventing a stable professional criminal network developing, with its absence means only illegitimate opportunities available within local gangs. Unrest and conflict arises in society, a well-known example of a conflict subcultures is the Bloods & Crips gangs in LA; Retreatist Subcultures; these subcultures include individuals who have failed to access either legitimate or illegitimate opportunity structures, also known as ‘Double Failures’. Usually likely to drop out of society and the established pathways altogether, as also stated by Merton. This drop out of society is more prone to occur within groups or gangs and not individuals, these groups most likely to abuse drugs as an example.

It is argued that while Cloward and Ohlin’s three forms of subculture seem separate, most criminal gangs frequently have elements of two or more of these subcultures. For example the use of drugs often plays a part in criminal subcultures, while ‘turf wars’ within conflict subcultures is often associated to organised crime, for instance dealing of drugs, rather than only being about conflict. Therefore, it is not clear that Cloward and Ohlin have identified three distinctly separate subcultures.

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The second theory of focus is the Labelling Theory. This theory claims that conformity and deviance does not arise from the individual’s actions, but rather from how others respond to the actions. When a crime is committed the usual reactions of the violation by the law is to demand a trail and a punishment convicted. The logic of this process is that the state intervenes to pursue offenders on behalf to protect society. These assumptions are challenged by the Labelling theory, with the argument that the state intervention has the effect of labelling an offender as a ‘criminal’, which has adverse effects.

Howard Becker (1963) suggested that through social groups deviance is created, they make rules that generate deviance and then apply them to particular individuals labelling them as deviant. He also stated that deviance is not the act committed by the individual but the consequences of rules applied by others. And the deviant one who the label has successfully been applied to. As an example, nudity in your own garden or a nudist beach isn’t a deviant act but nudity is considered a crime in certain areas, only when others define it as. Whether the act is labelled deviant depends on who commit and who observed the act, and negotiations with police, court and individual. A strength of Becker’s ideas are that they challenge the idea that deviants are different from ‘normal’ and shows importance of the reactions of others in defining and creating deviance.

Lemert (1951) distinguished deviance into two categories; primary and secondary deviance.

Lemert described primary deviance as episodes of deviant behaviour that many people participate in, for example, traffic laws like speeding or taking illegal drugs. Primary deviance has very few consequences on the individual when no one knows, but when it is discovered and exposed the label of deviant is attached. Secondary deviance is a result of societal reaction, when someone makes something out of that deviant behaviour which creates a negative social label that changes a person’s self-concept and once labelled may only be seen as that label, becoming their master status or controlling identity.

A criticism of labelling theory is that it ignores the processes and structures that lead to deviant acts. Such processes as differences in socialisation, attitudes, and opportunities, and how social and economic structures impact these. A second criticism of labelling theory is that it isn’t clear if there is an increase of deviant behaviour from labelling. Delinquent behaviour tends to increase following conviction, but is this a result of labelling as suggested by the theory. The ‘Proven Reoffending Statistics Quarterly Bulletin, October 2016 to December 2016’ state that an approximation of 8,000 juvenile offenders were cautioned, convicted or released from custody and around 3,000 of them committed a reoffence. This gives a proven reoffending rate of 40.4%, a decrease of 1.3 percentage points since the same quarter in 2015. (, 2018) It is very difficult to say, since many other factors may be involved, including increased interaction with other delinquents and learning new criminal opportunities.

The third and final theory for discussion is Social Control theory, theoretically speaking control theory does not focus on the causes of crime, but rather looks at why most people don’t commit crime and obey the law, look at conformity for the law rather than deviance. Travis Hirschi (1969) is the theorist primarily associated with this theory. Hirschi proposed that people generally conform to social norms due to strong social bonds. Equally, people who engage in delinquent acts because these bonds have been broken or are weak. Human beings who suffer from weaknesses which make them potentially unable to resist temptation and turn to crime, but stronger social bonds within other people encourage them to exercise self-control and restrain. The four components of social bonds are: Belief, this relates to the persons upbringing, if they have been brought up by family or friends to follow the law and be law abiding, they are seen to be less likely to become involved in crime. People share moral beliefs have more respect for rights of others and obedience to the law; Attachment, this relates to how weak or strong an individual’s relationship with others is. A stronger commitment to conventional activities, such as having a good job and a close family, they do not want to risk losing or damaging this through crime. The stronger their attachment and the stronger the expectations, the more likely it is that the individual will conform; Commitment, if an individual has committed him or herself to a particular lifestyle, getting married and having children as such, the more he or she has to lose if they were to commit or be involved in crime. People are sensitive to and interested in the wishes of others, family, friends and locals; Involvement; this component relates to time. The more amount of time the individual spends partaking in law abiding behaviour, the less time he or she has to engage in law breaking behaviour. For example, keeping busy with sports, community and religious groups, there is no time or opportunity to go against the law. Hirschi’s ideas have been useful in introducing ideas on how to prevent crime and achieving social order. His ideas have influenced social policymakers with the interest in how deviance can be reduced by promoting attachments. Promoting activities for young people, such as youth clubs and sports, encouraging employment for later in life and encouraging values and mortality in education are all effective ways in which policymakers could try and create bonds of attachment and reduce crime amongst youth. Another positive of the social control theory is that it recognises the importance of socialisation in maintaining a cohesive society. Although it fails to explain why some people have weaker bonds than others and does not explain between the different of variations of crime.

Altogether, as shown in this essay using only a few of many theories of why youth crime occurs and how to prevent it happening. There is not one straightforward answer to the question of ‘what causes crime?’. There are many contributing factors within an individual and their surroundings all effecting the reasons behind the crime being committed. Juvenile crime can easily be tackled at its point of origin, individuals usually develop the craving of committing a crime while they are still young therefore posing a very good opportunity to tackle the desire as children are more malleable.

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The Theories And Factors Of Youth Crime. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 22, 2023, from
“The Theories And Factors Of Youth Crime.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022,
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