Many may think that juvenile crime is on the rise, but it may actually be declining. According to a 1999 report by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), violent juvenile crimes fell steadily from 1995 to 1998 after peaking in 1994, and the arrest rate of violent juvenile crimes declined 30% from 1994 through 1998. (For more information visit the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention web site.) However, it is important to note that it is difficult to accurately quantify these figures for several reasons. Often, crimes committed by juveniles are not reported and those that are may not result in an arrest. Crimes are more likely to be reported when they involve a serious injury or large economic loss. Statistics on reported crime may reflect not only the number of crimes committed, but also in the willingness of victims to report crimes to law enforcement agencies, and in the inclination of the police to make records of incidents reported by victims. Many cases of reported crime may not result in a trial, therefore never entering the justice system.
Another factor to consider is that when an arrest is made, whether it be for one offense or many, it is only counted as one arrest. For instance, a juvenile may be arrested for committing a dozen burglaries but for the purposes of crime statistics, the arrest is only counted once. On the other hand, an individual may be arrested more than once in a year and each arrested is counted separately. It is important to keep in mind that crime statistics can only reflect on incidents that come to the attention of law enforcement and the justice system.
Mental illness and substance abuse, which often co-occur among juvenile offenders, can contribute substantially to delinquent behavior. Studies have consistently found very high prevalence rates of mental illness among detained and incarcerated juveniles, and juvenile offenders generally. While estimates of the percentage of juvenile offenders who have mental health problems vary widely (e.g., between about 30-90%, depending upon what is included as a mental illness), most estimates are substantially higher than the roughly 20% prevalence rate found in the non-delinquent adolescent population. Indeed, many juvenile offenders have multiple mental health problems, and about 15-20% have a serious mental illness. Lack of appropriate treatment in adolescence may lead to further delinquency, adult criminality, and adult mental illness.
Early-onset delinquents are usually males who have a history of aggression and violent behavior beginning as early as elementary school age. There may be a link to Attention Disorders, which are characterized by several symptoms including impulsiveness, and to Oppositional & Defiant Behavior, which is characterized by aggression and rule-breaking. A significant number of early-onset delinquents have an exaggerated tendency to believe that others have hostile intentions towards them. This belief, along with the impulsiveness characteristic of attention disorders, may make it extremely difficult for the child or adolescent to appropriately evaluate perceived threats in the environment. This combination frequently leads to conflict with family members and peers, as well as problems adjusting to different school situations.
Late-onset delinquents (those who become involved in delinquent behavior during their teenage years), rarely continue this behavior into adulthood. For these juveniles, peer pressure is likely to be the biggest factor in their decision to engage in problematic behavior. These adolescents often come from permissive families in which they are given a lot of freedom and are not very closely monitored by the adults who are responsible for them.