Every theory of juvenile delinquency explains delinquent offenses, at least in the minds of its proponents. If a theory were clearly and demonstrably unable to explain delinquent offenses, no one would believe in that theory. Therefore, any theory that is widely discussed today must explain delinquent offenses in the minds of some people. Let us look at major types of theories of juvenile delinquency and see how they would help to explain delinquent offenses.
One set of theories can be described as choice theories. These theories hold that delinquent offenses happen because offenders choose to commit those acts. For example, if you asked a youth why he stole shoes from a store he might say “I really wanted the shoes and I figure if I get caught, I just go to juvie for a little while.” This person seems to be acting rationally, deciding that the potential costs of his actions are lower than the potential benefits.
Another set of theories can be described as trait theories. In this set of theories, youths are influenced to commit delinquent offenses by certain traits that they have. These traits may be physical or psychological. Theorists who focus on physical traits are biosocial theorists. They study such things as chemical imbalances in offenders’ brains, genetic influences that might predispose people toward delinquent behavior, and problems with the functioning of the offenders’ cognitive processes. For example, some studies have shown that many murderers have suffered head trauma when they were children. This implies that there is something physically wrong with the brains of some people who commit delinquent acts.
Other trait theorists focus on things like psychological problems. They say that, for example, kids who do not have good parental role models can have psychological problems that make it hard for them to suppress aggressive tendencies. Therefore, these kids might do things like getting in fights because they lack the skills needed to control their impulses.
Finally, we can look at sociological theories. These theories hold that delinquency happens because of the way that our society is set up. For example, they would argue that people who live in poor neighborhoods perceive that there is no legitimate way for them to attain the sorts of things (like wealth and status) that society says they should want. Therefore, they become frustrated and may act out due to this frustration. For example, a young man might paint graffiti because he sees no other way to make a mark and be recognized in society.
All of these theories can plausibly claim to explain why delinquent offenses occur. It is unlikely that any one of them has the whole truth. It is more likely that each theory explains some delinquent acts.