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Essay: Juvenile Delinquency: Choice Or Trait

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  • Juvenile Delinquency: Choice Or Trait
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Juvenile delinquency is a relatively new concept that law enforcement and civilian organizations are attempting to understand and maintain control of. There are a number of successful programs as well as unsuccessful programs that have been implemented over the years to aid and prevent juvenile delinquency. Delinquency is a universal language among youths and is equally destructive as it is contagious. Over the years, law enforcement and sociologists have developed certain strategies and diagnostic tools that have been proven effective, but have yet to completely nullify the ever growing issue at hand. Some of these strategies include community policing, problem oriented policing, and aggressive law enforcement. Sociologists have developed diagnostic theories such as choice and trait theory in an attempt to shed some light on potential problem areas. In order for any strategy or theory to hold its water, there are many environmental and situational factors that must be considered before decisive action is to occur.

There are a number of theories that can and have been applied to juvenile delinquency in an attempt to better understand the thought process or lack thereof. Two popular theories that display good standing are Choice Theory and Trait Theory. According to Siegel & Welsh (2008) ‘Choice Theory holds that youths will engage in delinquent and criminal behavior after weighing the consequences and benefits of their actions’ (p. 47). Choice Theory operates on the assumption that youths are mature and capable of making rational decisions to reach a desired outcome. Another theory that rivals choice theory is trait theory. Trait theory suggests that ‘Youths engage in delinquent or criminal behavior due to aberrant physical or psychological traits that govern behavioral choices’ (Siegel & Welsh pg. 48). Trait theory supports that an individual’s choice is actually the product of a physical or psychological abnormality or defect. Both Choice and Trait theories are similar in nature because they both draw from an individual’s mental process or behavioral upbringing. Siegel & Welsh (2008) define Juvenile delinquency as ‘participation in illegal behavior by a minor who falls under a statutory age limit’ (p. 6). The key word in that sentence for a supporter of choice theory is participation. Participation is generally believed to be a personal act or choice that is exercised by the individual. A supporter of trait theory would rely on the explanation of an individual’s behavioral process. Delinquent activity is not the sole cause or effect of any theory in specific; the theories simply give an outside observer a possible starting or diagnosis point. Other theories include but are not limited to Routine Activities Theory, Deterrence Theory, and Psychodynamic Theory.

Choice Theory was developed by William Glasser, MD. Glasser suggests that human behavior is determined by four components: thinking, acting, feeling, and physiology. However, Glasser only believes that we have conscious control over acting and thinking. Choice theorists believe that the decision making process whether good or bad affects the way an individual feels emotionally and could possibly drive the individual to commit acts of delinquency. Juvenile delinquents are not deterred from crime as long as the benefits of the crime outweigh the consequences. This action alone suggests that the offender has a rational understanding of their actions and chooses to commit a delinquent act regardless. Many factors must be considered when applying any theory to a criminal or delinquent act; some of those factors include opportunity, economic need, financial accomplishment, and parental guardianship. Choice theory operates on the assumption that a motivated offender needs only a want or a goal in order to commit a delinquent act. In order for any act to be committed, a choice theorist expects an individual to calculate or predict multiple outcomes and then decide which option would potentially provide optimum results for the least amount of input. However, what has left this theory open to criticism is the fact that a large portion of choice theory is based on the belief that a juvenile is capable of making a rational decision. The most widely known counterpart to choice theory is trait theory.

Trait theory is a behavioral and environmental approach to the human personality. Dr. C. George Boeree defines a trait as ‘a characteristic way in which an individual perceives, feels, believes, or acts’. Gordon Allport was one of the first psychologists to study human traits. Allport broke down human trait characteristics into three main categories: cardinal traits, central traits, and secondary traits. According to Kendra Cherry (2012), Cardinal traits are the ‘traits that dominate an individual’s entire life, often to the point that the person becomes known specifically for these traits’. Central traits are simply general characteristics of in individual’s personality. Secondary traits are related to an individual’s likes or dislikes and even personal preferences. Trait theory is highly criticized due to the fact that human behavior is extremely hard to predict. Individuals with similar personality traits may respond and react completely opposite of one another in any given situation. Over time, a number of psychologists have redefined or tweaked trait theory views. Whether it is extraversion or introversion, or neuroticism and emotional stability, are all different ways of evaluating the same theoretical approach. What best defines the reasoning for juvenile delinquency? Does one theory have more standing than the other? The truth is that both theories are very similar once broken down in comparison. Both theories support and suggest that free will still remains with the individual, but both theories have different avenues of approach as to why the individual is faced with the specific decision.

Juvenile delinquency has been discovered to have many causes and even more effects. Child abuse, neglect, financial stress, sibling and parental influence, and divorce have all been known to increase the probability of juvenile delinquency. Child abuse for example is a mentally and physically devastating misfortune that leaves a juvenile confused and conflicted throughout a very important developmental stage in life. Child abuse not only leads to juvenile delinquency in general, but also many other disorders as well such as: Dissociative Identity Disorder, Smoking, Alcoholism, Drug Abuse, Depression, and even Suicide. Child abuse is just one cause of many that increases a juvenile’s exposure to delinquency. Criminal or delinquent acts are committed across the board by both juvenile and adult, but the offenses that are committed are usually dealt with on a completely different scale. For example, juvenile delinquents are analyzed through a system called the juvenile justice system. The juvenile justice system is comprised of law enforcement, court, and correctional agencies specifically geared towards the handling of delinquent youths. Some scientists believe that if a child or youth has already been entered into the system, then it’s already too late to make a substantial long lasting difference in that individual’s life. Most delinquency models operate under the assumption that in order to make a difference in any youth’s life, than the change must come early in childhood. In order to positively combat childhood delinquency, issues such as poverty, socialization skills, and education must be seriously addressed by implementing programs that engage the individuals mind and physical environment. It is important that the youths of today are able to comprehend that there are other options, the youths must comprehend that gangs, violence, drug abuse, and delinquency are counter productive options that cripple and disable any chance of leading a successful life. There are three levels of intervention: Primary, secondary, and tertiary. Primary is structured to assist in the well being of a child through healthcare needs, education, and possibly neighborhood appearance. Secondary intervention focuses on high risk individuals who are on the path to becoming delinquent youths. Tertiary intervention revolves around youths that have already committed delinquent acts and must take part in rehabilitation programs. Intervention and prevention programs can and have been known to be successful if used properly. Successful target and focus areas include nutritional education, parental skills or classes, and educational development. Prevention programs alone will not resolve the delinquency issues, but they are fundamental tools in the developmental stages of a troubled youth’s life. Recently, there has been an increase in youth services programs. Local law enforcement has taken the lead in attempt to alleviate and disperse some of the responsibility for juvenile delinquency and issues caused by it, such as gang activity.

Juvenile delinquency over time has developed into a tragic and traumatic social problem, which for some reason consistently attracts more and more youth’s everyday. It seems that regardless of effort by law enforcement or corrections officials, a reduction in the juvenile delinquency percentage is unlikely to decrease. The future of delinquency prevention must be directed at harsher punishments for repeat offenders or even offenders in general. Harsher punishments along with community based programs that take the fight to the individual household are vital. Community based programs have been known to bring about change when utilized correctly. Community based programs allow for the programs to attack a multitude of issues all at the same time, whether it be drug abuse, educational issues, gang involvement, or truancy. These programs are equipped with the necessary tools such as family counselling, tutoring, and mentoring, which help set a positive example for community youths. The future of every community’s youth are at risk unless law enforcement, corrections, and civilian officials are willing to take the necessary steps in implementing programs that force a change from the inside out.


Boeree, G. (2009). Trait theories of personality. Retrieved from
Cherry, K. (2012). Trait theory of personality. Retrieved from
Siegel, L., & Welsh, B. (2008). Juvenile delinquency. (3rd ed., p. 47). Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning

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