Juvenile Delinquency | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Juvenile Delinquency

Juvenile delinquency, in social science, refers primarily to social acts of juveniles that are defined and evaluated as deviant or antisocial by legal or social norms and that are usually socially learned.

Juvenile Delinquency

Juvenile delinquency, in social science, refers primarily to social acts of juveniles that are defined and evaluated as deviant or antisocial by legal or social norms and that are usually socially learned. The precise legal definition of a "juvenile delinquent" or "young offender" is someone between 12 and 17 years of age who through the due process of law has been found to have violated criminal legislation and is therefore subject to punishments determined by a youth court. Children under the age of 12 who commit what would otherwise be criminal offences can only be dealt with under child protection legislation (seeJUVENILE JUSTICE SYSTEMS).


In Canada, provisions for special institutions and treatment for young people became available in 1857, but the first federal legislation dealing with juvenile delinquents was the Juvenile Delinquents Act, passed in 1908 and revised in 1929. Under the Act, the definition of delinquency stretched beyond adult crimes specified in the Criminal Code to include "sexual immorality or any similar form of vice" as well as cases of neglected, abused or uncontrollable children. The Act established the state as a sympathetic guardian which treated the juvenile as a misguided child requiring care and supervision. The JDA created a highly discretionary youth justice system that left police, judges and probation officers to do whatever they thought was in the child's "best interests." The lack of legislative guidelines governing both jurisdiction and judicial sentencing led to disparities across Canada regarding who was under juvenile court authority and how they were dealt with.

These realities led to critics attacking the Act for its paternalism, informality and failure to protect the basic legal rights of children. In response to these and other criticisms, the Young Offenders Act eliminates all status offences such as truancy and sexual immorality, leaving delinquency to be confined to only criminal offences. The YOA also provides young offenders with the right to legal representation and establishes strict rules of evidence and proof throughout court proceedings. The YOA constitutes a youth justice system that stresses the accountability of the offender and the protection of society while still recognizing the special needs of youths. Reflecting this, its dispositions range from reprimands, fines, probation and community service to secure custody, for up to 10 years in the case of extremely serious offences, such as first degree murder.

Official Statistics

The official statistics on delinquency gathered from the records of public agencies, eg, the police, juvenile courts and correctional institutions, and published by the Centre for Justice Statistics at Statistics Canada are valuable but reflect the actions of officials rather than children. These records offer limited understanding of the nature of delinquency and the process by which an individual becomes delinquent. The behaviour of children varies widely, and since all youngsters likely act in ways that could result in legal action, it is not correct to presume that children are either delinquents or nondelinquents. Moreover, clinically normal children are responsible for most of the delinquency in society. Although some maladjusted children do violate the law, there is no necessary correlation between delinquency and defective personalities.

Furthermore, police statistics do not reveal all the delinquency that occurs in society. Self-report questionnaires and interviews indicate that while most youths have committed some form of minor crime, a small number of youths from impoverished and disadvantaged circumstances (high school dropouts, homeless street youths, youths in urban slums) commit most of the serious juvenile delinquency. Recent research underscores the significance of poverty in explaining the distribution of delinquency.


Research in CRIMINOLOGY and delinquency in Canada has increased considerably during the past 35 years, and the schools of criminology at Simon Fraser University and the Universities of Montréal, Toronto and Ottawa have developed into important centres of study. Criminology programs under the auspices of sociology departments at Carleton University and the Universities of Alberta, Manitoba and Windsor and at the Criminology Centre at Dalhousie have also contributed to the development of knowledge in Canada. Canadian research has been strongly influenced by American theory. Psychiatric theories, for example, argue that delinquency is a solution to psychological problems resulting from early, damaged family relationships.

"Sociogenic" theories emphasize the importance of learned behaviour. According to "subcultural" theories, working-class youths generate a new subculture of norms and expectations in which virtue consists of defying middle-class morality. According to labelling theories, a delinquent career is a response to institutional processing by official agencies. Proponents of control theories emphasize the importance of socialization in helping individuals develop appropriate emotions, beliefs and concerns that bond them to society. Recent work has focused on integrating the above theories to provide a more complete understanding of the causes of delinquency. Canadian researchers have also drawn on British theoretical developments to explain the media attention on youth crime and how and why the criminal legislation affecting youths is created.

Canadian researchers have provided important theoretical and empirical contributions to the field, including "power control theory," which examines the socialization patterns of males and females in different social classes and the effect that this has on delinquent participation. Important longitudinal work has been undertaken with violent boys by researchers in Québec, and there is a growing number of studies being conducted in Canada focusing upon the relationship between social and economic marginality and criminal subcultural activity.

Focusing on delinquent groups and homeless youth, this work reveals that these serious young offenders have been brought up in impoverished families where they experience neglect, rejection and physical and emotional abuse. They have poor educational backgrounds, few employment skills and minimal job prospects. Once forced onto the streets by their parents or their poverty, these youths view their legitimate opportunities as closed, leaving them detached from conventional society to become immersed in a lifestyle of drugs, alcohol and serious criminal behaviour.

In Canada, techniques and mechanisms to control delinquency have not been effective. Treatment (a term that unfortunately implies that delinquents have defective personalities that should be cured) programs are well established and include individualized treatment and counselling, group therapy and self-help groups, but their impact on delinquency has been minimal. Nonintervention programs are an attempt to minimize contact between the offender and the criminal justice system. This approach usually includes the idea of restitution and is likely to be successful with those who have committed harmless violations; however, modifications in the criminal justice system are not likely to have much effect on delinquent behaviour.

Our understanding of delinquency will not develop without a considerable increase in the extent and quality of our knowledge of Canadian society (and its seemingly endemic disparities in wealth, power and opportunities) and the common motivations for crime and delinquency. Without a willingness to accept widespread reforms and solutions that require major readjustments to our way of life, a vast reduction in delinquency will never be achieved.

Further Reading

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