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The Issue Of Minors Breaking The Law In The United States And Its Causes

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Introduction

Juvenile delinquency, despite falling overall rates of crime in the United States, remains a serious problem in this country. Around 2.5 million juveniles are arrested every year for various crimes in America, of which around 100,000 are violent crimes; however, it is estimated that this issue may be much larger than arrests show, because only about half of all crimes involving juveniles are even reported (Juvenile Justice Basic Statistics, 2011). Juvenile involvement in violent crimes has remained roughly constant for the past two decades, and they form a significant percentage of many other crimes in the United States, such as accounting for over half of all arson arrests, around 40 percent of vandalism arrests, and one-third of burglary arrests (Juvenile Justice Basic Statistics, 2011). In order to create interventions to assist at-risk youth, prevent them from beginning on the path of crime, or assist in corrective programs to induce prosocial behavior among the juvenile criminal population, researchers and professionals in the juvenile justice system must arrive at a better understanding of the causal factors that underlie delinquent behavior.

This study seeks to determine which, among the various reasons for juvenile crime, are the most prevalent causes among the criminal population that induce a propensity for criminal behavior. A balance must be struck among attributing behavior to specific causes, however; strong causal designs of intervention programs can risk unsuccessful or uncertain program outcomes, although weak causal reasoning cannot be adopted to practical use and the creation of interventions (Borowski, 2003). Previous theories have attempted to occasionally describe juvenile delinquency as being attributable to a single causal factor, such as poverty and social disorganization in neighborhoods from an external standpoint, or more proximal causes such as problematic peer influences or ego deficiency (Borowski, 2003). Newer models, however, generally take the approach that this behavior is due to “a large number of factors operating at different levels,” which include both proximal and distal factors. It is from this perspective that the current study will operate, as it is difficult to attribute juvenile delinquency, which can take many forms, to a single factor that invariably serves as a cause in all cases.

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Method

Design

The present study uses a self-report method of analysis similar to that employed by Farrington, Loeber, Yin, and Anderson (2002), which utilizes reliable and valid measures as seen in both Farrington et al. (2002) and Van Hulle, D’Onfrio, Rodgers, Waldman, and Lahey (2007). Delinquency will be defined as self-reporting for the frequency of committing certain actions within a period of six months, and will include stealing items worth under $5, stealing those valued between $5 and $50, stealing items worth over $50, joyriding, stealing a car, check or credit card fraud, robbery, fighting, aggressive sexual behavior, drinking, ditching school, selling marijuana or other drugs, and using marijuana or other drugs. These actions will be divided into categories of aggressive and nonaggressive delinquent behavior in order to allow for analysis of potentially distinct reasons for each. The causal factors for delinquency will be defined as attention deficit and impulsivity problems, depression and mood, academic achievement, parental supervision, parental reinforcement, parental communication, socioeconomic status, housing status, and peer behaviors. Each of these will utilize self-report measures from both the juvenile, and, for those factors involving the family, one of their parents or guardians, as well. These definitions can provide a great deal of explanatory power for the reasons behind different types of juvenile behavior (Farrington et al., 2002; Van Hulle et al., 2007). These factors will serve as the independent variables for this study, and the dependent variable will be the frequency of delinquent behavior.

Sampling

Sampling will be performed based on juveniles of high school age that will be recruited from community samples; recruiting will take place on campus at schools throughout a major American city. Schools that recruiting will take place at will be in neighborhoods from various socioeconomic backgrounds, so as to provide a diverse sample both economically and racially, as ethnic minorities tend to be located in lower socioeconomic areas, in many cases; additionally, lower socioeconomic status may contribute to delinquent behavior (Van Hulle et al., 2007). Interviewers will provide contact numbers to students while recruiting, with the permission of schools, and offered $50 for participating in a study that will involve an interview with them and their parents. After calling, they will be screened with a series of demographic questions including their age, ethnicity, level of socioeconomic status, and frequency of criminal behavior; their answers will be kept confidential, as will all information in the study, but they will be used in order to obtain certain levels of participants for the study. Only juveniles reporting some frequency of criminal activity in the past six months will be recruited, and recruiting will strive for at least 15 percent African-American youth, 20 percent Hispanic youth, and roughly equal numbers of males and females in order to provide a roughly representative sample of minors that reflect these attributes of the American population (Farrington et al., 2002). In total, 100 students will be interviewed for the study.

Variable Assessment

Interviews will be conducted at the homes of participants after school, with interviewers driving to the home to conduct the research. The 2-3 hour interviews will consist of asking the student, and one parent, confidential questions, after which they will be given compensation. Although the interviewer will be present and recording responses, the confidentiality of the responses, along with the fact that only the interviewee and interviewer will be in the room during the questions, should help to increase the propensity for honest answers (Van Hulle, 2007). The measures for the dependent variables, as mentioned, will consist of responses to the frequency of 25 types of delinquent behaviors over the previous six months. Answers will be arranged in terms of frequency over the past week, past month, and past six months, with the interviewer using temporal cues to help the participants recall events and frequencies; for example, “Did you drink on New Years? How about during the Super Bowl?” The independent variables will consist of a 14-question measure of hyperactivity based on behavior as reported by the parent, mood will utilize the Beck Depression Inventory self-report of 0-3 ratings of 30 questions assessing different aspects of depression, and academic achievement will be recorded by using the reported grade point average from the student and parent, both. If possible, school administration will be requested to report actual grade point averages with the consent of the participant and their parent or guardian.

The other independent variables will be assessed as follows. Parental supervision will consist of four questions each to the participant and parent, and will be rated on scales of 0-3 based on frequency, such as “How often do your parents know where you are going when you leave home?” Parental reinforcement will consist of eight questions to both the parent and participant, requesting information on how behavior is reinforced, and how often. The communication between parent and participant will be assessed based on 30 questions each, looking at communication scales; for example, “How often do you talk to your parents about personal issues?” Socioeconomic status will use the Hollingshead index, which bases scores on occupational prestige, parental educational level, and other information furnished by the parent; however, only the score of the parent with the higher score will be used if the participant lives with both parents. Housing will be evaluated by the interviewer, and be based on structural conditions within the home, cleanliness, and state of repair. Finally, peer behavior will be based on participant report, and assess the proportion of their friends that participate in several types of delinquent behavior that serve, also, as dependent variables for the participant.

Analysis

After this information is collected, it can be evaluated using multivariate regression analysis. This type of analysis is generally used by studies investigating the potential for multiple causes behind juvenile delinquency, as it allows the researcher to determine the correlations between individual independent variables that serve as predictive or causal factors, as well as the dependent variable of juvenile delinquency (Farrington et al., 2002; Van Hulle et al., 2007). Additionally, it can also show between-group differences easily, by averaging correlations between groups of students based on neighborhood, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, and other variables, and comparing them. Within-group correlations can also be seen by testing the distribution of certain correlations, their skew, mean, and curve shape when the correlations are plotted. Contact information will be collected from participants and updated annually as well, so that a follow-up study could be performed some years later to determine how potential changes in independent variables could correlate with changes in delinquency, or, as the case may be, adult criminal behavior, which would strengthen the power of within-group comparisons.

Based on the results of other studies, it is expected that some correlations will be seen immediately, such as a link between socioeconomic status and delinquent behavior, as well as between housing and delinquent behavior. However, the advantage of this study design is that it can also show protective factors that could limit delinquent behavior. Students with a lesser incidence of delinquent behaviors may have a greater commitment to school, for example, or show less of a desire to associate with peers that commit specific types of delinquent behavior. Through this analysis, protective and risk factors could be identified, and these could serve as a basis for future research; for example, by investigating a particular independent variable to more fully explore how it influences delinquent activity. Additionally, interventions based on imparting coping strategies or avoidance of risk factors, or through the enhancing of protective factors, could be developed. Much work remains to be done in order to fully explain why some minors commit crimes, but this study will provide a greater understanding of the ways that specific factors influence various types of violent and nonviolent delinquency.

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