It has been widely recognized in the social sciences that environmental factors often play a role, sometime a very large role, in whether a juvenile will be involved in a crime. In their 2011 book Environmental Criminology and Crime Analysis, Richard Wortley , Professor and Director of the UCL Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science and Lorraine Mazerolle, Research Professor in the Institute for Social Science Research (ISSR) at the University of Queensland concluded that “[o]ur “perspective of “crime” is essentially different from an environmental perspective, which not only focuses on the elements of the crime, such as biological factors, social forces and/or development experiences that create an offender.” Furthermore, “[t]he offender is just one element of a criminal event, and how offenders come to be the way they are is of little immediate relevance” to institutions, but is should be. Removing environmental factors from the analysis is to miss a huge reason why juveniles turn to crime. There are three elements to consider when considering how the environment contributes to delinquency: poverty, educational opportunities, and family life.
First, it must be understood that not only does the environment contribute to sparking deviant behavior, it also shapes it. It is both a setting for the crime and the influence for the crime. Unsurprisingly, young people spend their free time socialize with members of their social groups; peers that have already turned to crime bring others in as well. These crimes may also be spurred along by drug use, mental health issues, lack of educational opportunities or poor quality education, or on-going family issues.
Because young people cannot typically remove themselves from a negative environment, many do turn to crime because it seems to offer them a solution to their problems. Theft gets you the goods or money you want because you cannot acquire these things through honest means. Drugs offer temporary relief from unpleasant home life or troubles at school. There has been some success shown when courts, instead of incarcerating the youthful offender, order family intervention and education programs.
Time and space are also contributing factors to juvenile crime rates. Many crimes, by both young and old, are crimes of opportunity. Often, the motivator for the crime is exclusively opportunity rather than a clear need, desire, or purpose. In their study, Delinquency and Opportunity, (2004) Richard A. Cloward and Lloyd E. Ohlin assert that “opportunities,” legitimate or illegitimate, implies access to both learning and performance structures. That is, the individual must have access to appropriate environments for the acquisition of the values and skills associated with the performance of a particular role, and he must be supported in the performance of the role once he has learned it.”
It is not difficult for analysts to identify patterns of crime in specific locations. Therefore, it is also not terribly difficult to predict future incidents of crime. An influential study by Clifford Shaw and Harvey McKay in 1942 looked at juvenile delinquency rates in Chicago; their work showed a pattern of criminal behavior over time that had a “consistent correlation with aggregate community measures of poverty, residential instability, and the heterogeneous ethnic composition of neighborhoods.” These neighborhoods were overwhelmingly disadvantaged economically and educationally with high levels of family dysfunction.
One thing has remained true from 1942 (and before) until today: changing environments reduces the rates of juvenile crime. Environments that remain mired in poverty, poor education, and family issues raises those rates. The environment is a crucial key in understanding and predicting crimes committed by young people.