It is very hard to define juvenile delinquency in terms of deviance from conduct norms because norms vary from state to state, city to city, and neighborhood to neighborhood. The attitudes and actions of parents exercise an important influence on whether a child is found to be incorrigible and disobedient or compliant and receptive to the learning experience. The policies of the police and the attitudes in the community can influence the notion of what delinquency is. Juveniles today are handled differently and separately from adults in almost every phase of the criminal justice system.
Like most of American criminal practice, the juvenile justice system derives from the Common Law of England. The English Common Law in regard to criminal responsibility is based on three assumptions concerning age: first, a person under the age of seven is presumed to be incapable of forming criminal intent; second, from the age of eight to fourteen, an offender is not held responsible unless the state can prove that he/she can clearly distinguish between right and wrong. The main concern is for the welfare of the child and the legal procedures that might hamper the court in its beneficial actions are either circumvented or ignored. There are two concepts under the Common Law: the presumption that children under a certain age are not responsible for their actions, and the conviction that a certain category of children is in need of protection.
When the age requirements were raised to sixteen and eighteen, the concepts of juvenile delinquency became known. In 1899, America started to give attention to a juvenile court system. The first juvenile court was established in that year in Chicago. Subsequently, the mixing of juvenile offenders and adult felons, which had taken place for centuries, was looked upon as repugnant in America.
In 1966, the case of Miranda v. Arizona introduced a turbulent period for the criminal justice system. Police officials were very much opposed to the rules that require them to advise an accused of his Constitutional rights because they felt that this practice handicapped them. The Supreme Court ruled that once the police held a person in custody, and before interrogation, the accused had to be advised that:
1. He/she has the right to remain silent,
2. Anything he says may be used against him in a court of law,
3. He has the right to speak to any attorney and to have his attorney present during questioning. If he desires counsel and cannot provide his own, one will be provided him without charge before questioning.
This right is necessary. If a suspect is being advised of his/her rights, and does not elect to remain silent and does not request counsel, he/she would be regarded as having voluntarily consented to interrogation.
By the following year, the justice system also received a major jolt in the State of Arizona with a case, In Re Gault. This case focused on several of the rights incorporated in the Fourteenth Amendment’s “due process” clause.5 Gerald Gault, fifteen years old, was sentenced to confinement for the remainder of his minority (six years) for an offense (lewd and indecent phone calls). The maximum penalty for an adult in such a case would have been only two months.
During the course of his hearings, Mr. Gault was deprived of most of the privileges that various court decisions had granted his adult counterparts. His appeal was heard by the United States Supreme Court on the issues of: notice of the charge, right to counsel, right to confrontation and cross-examination, privilege against self-incrimination, right to transcript of the proceedings, and right to appellate review. Gault was entitled to those rights at the time and it was these rights that reshaped the direction of the juvenile justice system and replaced the concept of parens patriae with due process. It seems that juvenile justice will continue to follow the ideals of parens patriae, but with the Supreme Court watching to see that the rights of young citizens are not abused.
It is reasonable to argue that the relatively high proportion of adult felons who were processed through the juvenile treatment and training institutions as youths may decrease sharply as alternatives to formal processing, institutionalization, and labeling are developed for juveniles. Recognition of this problem, and the development of alternatives, will reduce the burden that juvenile delinquents place on the adult correctional system.
Some writers have attributed the “delinquency problem” to factors such as parent-youth conflict, the modern conditions of family life, and the lack of sustained primary relationships. Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin write that the problem may be regarded as a symptom of strain caused by the gap between culturally prescribed aspirations (e.g. monetary success) and socially structured avenues designed to achieve goals. Perhaps everyone wants to be successful, but social differences create problems. David Matza believes that delinquency is a version of teenage culture. It seems that some writers have based their theories on what juvenile delinquents do without a concern for how the label of delinquency comes to be applied to troublesome youth.
Sociologists have provided significant information about the social context of delinquency, the economic inequalities which facilitate illegal behavior, and subcultural behavior. However, we know very little about the social processes by which formal organizations define persons as “delinquent.” If we cannot understand the routine activities, customs and self-images of delinquents, we will not be able to understand the ways in which certain types of youthful behavior come to be viewed as delinquent. David Matza, too, agrees that delinquency cannot be explained. He stresses the fact that delinquent behavior is a rule-breaking behavior performed by juveniles who are aware that they are violating the law.6