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Juvenile delinquency refers to behaviors of chil
dren and adolescents that violate the legal code.
Some jurisdictions further distinguish delin
quent offenses, those that violate criminal law,
from status offenses (e.g., curfew violation,
truancy) that apply only to minors. The legal
status of juvenile delinquent is relatively new.
The concept of delinquency is rooted, however,
in an ancient debate over when children can
form criminal intent and bear criminal respon
sibility for their actions, and whether/how they
should be officially sanctioned. Some of the
earliest written legal codes make distinctions in
the punishments available for children and adult
offenders. By the seventeenth century, English
common law adopted a classification system
where children under 8 years of age were
immune from criminal prosecution. For youth
aged 8 to 13 years, the state had the burden
of proving that the youth possessed criminal
intent (Butts & Mitchell 2000). In the United
States, Progressive era reformers went a step
further and created an entirely new system to
respond to juvenile offenders. The first juvenile
court, created in Cook County, Illinois in 1899
and modeled thereafter by other states, was
markedly different from criminal courts. The
new court was quasi civil and informal in nat
ure, and under the doctrine of parens patriae
(the state as parent), aspired to act in the best
interests of the child. The new philosophy and
procedures required a new language. Thus,
rather than finding juveniles guilty of a criminal
offense and sentencing them to a sanction,
youths were adjudicated delinquent and
received a suitable disposition.
The issues of criminal responsibility and
age appropriate responses to juvenile offending
remain unresolved, as evidenced by wide varia
tion in statutes defining juvenile delinquency
across the United States. For example, the
upper age limit for juvenile court jurisdictions
ranges from 15 to 18 years. Additionally, many
states have statutes that allow, for various rea
sons (e.g., seriousness of offense, prior juvenile
offenses), youth to be waived to criminal court.
Aside from legal considerations and the for
mal response to juvenile misconduct, juvenile
delinquency occupies a central position in the
study of criminal behavior. This position is well
justified for a number of reasons, chief among
them the prevalence of juvenile offending. In
the United States, juveniles aged 1317 years
make up only 6 percent of the population, yet
account for roughly 30 percent of all arrests for
Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) index
offenses. A plot of arrest rates versus age yields
an agecrime curve that indicates offending
rates peak during adolescence (around age 16
for property offenses, and age 18 for violent
offenses) and diminish soon thereafter.
Unsurprisingly therefore, the major theo
retical paradigms explaining crime, including
social control theory (Hirschi 1969), social
learning theory (Sutherland 1947), strain theory
(Merton 1938), and labeling theory (Becker
1963), are derived from theories of juvenile
delinquency. In the 1960s, several subculture
theories evolved solely to explain the exis
tence and nature of delinquent gangs (see, e.g.,
Cohen 1955). Although some of theses theories
extend to account for adult offending, most
focus explicitly on concepts (school experience,
peer groups, parenting) that are germane to ado
lescence. More recently, juvenile delinquency
interests criminologists for another reason
its ability to predict future criminal behavior.
Studies (using both self report and official
data) of cohorts of children indicate that a small
minority of children (roughly 6 percent)
account for a large portion (over 50 percent)
of the delinquency in that cohort. Further,