There are several theories that purport to at least partially explain why children commit crimes. In most instances, it is impossible to categorically state that a particular juvenile commits crimes for any one specific reason; most often, it is a combination of underlying causes, some physical, some environmental. The most controversial among these theories are those that focus on biological characteristics. Whether the structure of some individuals’ brains is such that they are physiologically predisposed to commit crimes is an extremely sensitive subject. There is no question, however, that chemical imbalances in the brain can result in deviant behavior. Genetics can play a role in determining whether a child is more likely to follow in a parent’s footsteps if those genes contain an aberration that adversely influences thought processes. A report by New Zealand’s Ministry of Justice noted that factors contributing to deviant behavior that lie within the physiological make-up of an individual can include the following:
“Growing understanding of these mechanisms suggest that certain biological factors, such as particular genes, neurological deficits, low serotonin activity, malnutrition and environmental pollutants may all affect a person’s biological propensity for criminal or antisocial behavior.” [“Theories of the Causes of Crime,” New Zealand Ministry of Justice, March 2009]
While the extent to which biological factors contribute to crime remains highly contentious and fraught with emotional overtones, there is less controversy surrounding the role of environmental factors, for example, alcoholic or drug-abusing parents and poverty, in determining the causes of juvenile offenses. The environment in which a child is raised can be very influential in determining whether that child becomes prone to antisocial or criminal behavior. A neighborhood where gangs are prevalent and pressure is regularly imposed upon young children to join such gangs is a clear risk factor, as is the home in which absent or deficient parenting leaves a child with no sense of “family” save for the gang that provides the security and comradeship unavailable at home. The sense of belonging, even to a violent gang where the risk of death or imprisonment is ever-present, is a strong motivator for at-risk youths.
The “social learning” theory of juvenile delinquency is a product of these environmental factors. While biological factors can predispose someone to commit crimes, in most instances the criminal lifestyle is learned through observation and necessity. An example of an individual whose criminal record was born of environmental factors, in this case, parenting, was the figure of “Norman Bucklew,” the pseudonym for a real-life convicted murderer with whom journalist Pete Earley came into contact when researching his book on life inside a federal penitentiary, The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison (1993). Bucklew describes how being raised by his father to trust nobody, especially the police, and that everybody he meets may try to kill him. It was little surprise, therefore, that Norman grew up deviant and spent most of his life in prisons.
In some instances, the causes of a particular juvenile’s antisocial behavior is a product of environmental and biological factors. For the vast majority of juvenile offenders, however, the environment in which they grow up is the determining factor.