Diritto Criminologia e criminalistica

The psychosocial determinants of juvenile delinquency in the perception of lower secondary school students

by Ewa Kochanowska[i] (Polish-English translation by Karolina Iwaszuk)

Summary: The following article analyses opinions of lower secondary school students on criminal acts committed by juveniles in order to estimate factors conducive to them and to reconstruct motivational processes that lead to crime. The study was conducted among lower secondary school students, i.e. the youth in the age of adolescence. The survey study of youth on the issue of juvenile delinquency, including its psycho-social determinants, should be the starting point of effective preventive actions, whose essence is to counteract threats of social maladjustment and criminal behaviour.

1. Introduction – The theoretical context

Juvenile delinquency, despite its long history, as a social phenomenon did not occur  before the late 19th century and was associated with the rise of the industrial society, which was followed by rapid industrial and urban development and significant migration of people. In Western countries the final stages of evolutional development of mass juvenile crime fell on the sixties and seventies of the 20th century. In Poland, however, until 1989 juvenile delinquency was regarded as a sign of social pathology and was associated with a narrow margin of society and highly pathological environments that required greater interest of institutions providing social service and preventive – rehabilitative institutions[ii].

The overall increase in crime in our country after 1989, largely caused by transformations of our society in social, political, cultural and economical areas, showed the need for scientific definition of the phenomenon of crime in its quantitative as well as quality aspect[iii].

The official police[iv] and court statistics referring to the past several years and presenting the size and character of juvenile crime, indicate three main tendencies occurring in it: systematic increase of all types of crimes, lowering of the minimum age of juvenile offenders and a significant increase in violent crime characterized by highly intensive aggression and unusual brutality. This results in the growing interests of representatives of various scientific disciplines, especially of criminologists, in study on juvenile delinquency, which additionally arises, according to B. Hołyst, from three reasons:

a)      Hopes for rehabilitation connected with lower corruption of youth

b)      Evoking social sensitivity to demoralization of young generation

c)      The opportunity for the more precise definition of the origins of criminal behaviour[v], than it possible in the case of adults.

According to the author, the population of juvenile offenders requires special care due to few reasons. Firstly, due to further lives of this group of young people, their future preparation to life and performance of social roles and duties are important. Secondly, we must consider the danger that threatens not only this particular group of adolescents but the whole society. Early social maladjustment manifested, inter alia, by committing crimes may lead to further social derailment. Symptoms of social maladjustment, having their origins in childhood and early adolescence, are likely to gain on intensity and become the base for development of other forms of deviation, which makes it hard for juveniles to adapt to the requirements of life in the society and to functioning in it as its full member. And lastly, we should consider the danger of enhancing sources of adult crimes by juvenile offenders, who may eventually become adult criminals[vi].

According to the Polish criminal law, juveniles[vii] generally do not commit crimes, therefore offences committed by them are not called crimes (except those defined in art. 10 § 2 of the Criminal Code) and juveniles committing them[viii] are not called criminals. Despite the following definition of a crime and a person committing it, the use of term “juvenile crime” is very popular in our country, maybe, inter alia, because of the fact that Polish language lacks other term denoting juvenile behaviour that require intervention of the court.

In the literature on the subject, one may find great number of theories[ix] explaining causes of committing criminal offences by juveniles. The most general classification distinguishes between biological, psychological and sociological standpoints on the basis of which we try to explain the genesis of criminal behaviour of juveniles and to define factors affecting their occurrence.

The author of the following study analyses opinions of lower secondary school students[x] on the issues of crimes committed by juveniles in order to determine factors conducive to their occurrence and reconstruction of motivational processes that lead to crime. The study was conducted among lower secondary school students i.e. youth in the age of adolescence, which W. Szewczuk identifies with “the age of maturing” and states that it is a transitional period “ (…) lasting approximately from 11-12 to 17-18 year of life, which characteristic feature is increasing physical and mental development leading to gain maturity[xi]”. It is in adolescents nature to gradually addict themselves to authorities, to verify cognitive, emotional and social content as well as to acquire skill at understanding relativity of particular rights. Moreover, during this period of life, the understanding of conventionality of certain social arrangements and ability to critical analysis of norms are shaped. Hence, the attempt to look at the determinants of crime from the perspective of individuals who are at the same age or close to the age of juveniles offenders.

2. Results of the study

The main aim of the conducted study[xii] was to determine what the youth’s attitudes towards the matter of juvenile delinquency are, but especially – in the context of the studied problem – to examine how secondary school students perceive determinants of juvenile criminal behaviour.

The research  was carried out  in April and May 2013 in lower secondary schools in Bielsko-Biała and in the district of Pszczyna. It was based on a diagnostic survey in the form of an interview questionnaire. The object of the study were randomly selected 108 girls and 84 boys at the age from 13 to 16. The vast majority of the  questioned (132 individuals, i.e. 68.7%) live in rural areas near towns Pszczyna and Bielsko-Biała.

74 percent of the respondents states that juvenile delinquency is a considerable problem in Poland.  It may be related to the generally increasing awareness of our society, including adolescents, in the issue of crime, but also to direct contact of adolescents with the discussed issue in their environment. The fact that 26 % do not see the problem is disturbing. Furthermore, in the opinion of 66 % of the questioned crime has an increasing tendency in Poland. The smallest number of the questioned students(24 people, i.e.12.5%) think that the crime factors decreases. The rest of the surveyed individuals do not have any opinion on the subject.

The environment can be understood widely as the generality of human’s social, economic and cultural conditions (the macro-social approach), or more narrowly as immediate surroundings and conditions in which an individual is raised (the micro-social approach).

The surveyed youth indicated on few widely understood socio-economic factors and social problems that, in their opinion, are most strongly associated with juvenile crime (graph no.1).

graph no. 1

Graph no. 1 The macro-social problems and factors – sources of juvenile crime in the opinion of the surveyed students

Among many macro-social problems and factors that are conducive to juvenile crime, the largest group of the surveyed (157 individuals, i.e. 81.7%) pointed at alcoholism or alcohol abuse of adolescents or their families. Young people are conscious of the fact that alcohol abuse may be direct or indirect cause of criminal activity, and that it results in changes in the personality of an alcohol abusing person that determine specific criminal behaviour. More than a half of the respondents (112 students, i.e. 58.3%) indicated drugs as a cause of juvenile delinquency. The presented results shows that adolescents are conscious of the dangers connected with  addictions in the context of crime. Furthermore, the respondents drew attention to the fact that juveniles who commit crimes are often raised in bad environmental conditions that systematically pose difficult situations for them, which leads to manifest their defence mechanisms. Their behaviour is characterized by the whole set of symptoms that show that they do not obey certain fundamental standards of behaviour and social, moral and legal norms. In this group of factors, the surveyed enclosed, above all, poverty (123 students, i.e. 64%) and violence in the family (54 respondents, i.e. 28%).

Generally, young people grow up in three, natural for the development of an individual, environments: family, school, and outer-school environment (mostly: peer groups, “playground friends”). In all of them there are characteristic determinants shaping their behaviour. In these environments adolescents may meet with acceptance or disapproval of their actions and their specific moral, social, legal effects. In the search for environmental causes of juvenile crime, the respondents were asked to point out those which, according to them, have the most significant effect on committing crimes by juveniles (graph no.2).

graph no. 2

Graph no. 2. Environments and social factors affecting juvenile crime, according to the respondents

The largest number of the surveyed  (161 adolescents, i.e. 84%) indicates peer groups as the source of juvenile delinquency. The students drew special attention to the outer-school informal environment (peer groups, playground friends) that are created spontaneously or according to some kind of plan, in which young people search for acceptance and in which they share imposed standards of behaviour. Adolescents are very easily influenced and they copy patterns of behaviour, in this case those negative. The second most frequently indicated (119 students, i.e. 62%) environment that may be the source of criminal actions is, according to the respondents, a family which does not want to or does not know how to satisfy a child’s needs. A family that manifests wrong parental patterns or that struggles with the problem of addiction, e.g. alcoholism. Media have also considerable influence on shaping of criminal behaviour among juveniles (65 respondents, i.e. 34%). Although media affect juveniles indirectly, in the opinion of the respondents this influence is significant (especially watching acts of violence in various forms). According to the questioned students, school is also a source of criminal behaviours (44 respondents, i.e. 23%),  in particular: negligence and educational errors of teachers, inappropriate school conditions (many students in one class, high number of schools, which results in a student’s anonymity, no time for individual contact with a teacher, bulling).

graph no. 3

Graph no.3. External determinants of juvenile criminal behaviour, according to the surveyed adolescents

Among direct motives for criminal behaviour of exogenous character, young people indicated above all pressure of a peer group (167 student, i.e. 87%), which aims at criminal acts (group pressure), and have negative patterns of behaviour or complete lack of those positive ones in a family, a school or in a peer group (121 surveyed people, i.e. 63%). The respondents (144 student, i.e. 75%) also blame additive substances, mostly drugs and alcohol, for juvenile delinquency. The already mentioned motive is often connected with another mentioned by the students factor, that is a desire to gain material benefits (81 respondents, i.e. 42%) such as money for alcohol, cigarettes and drugs.

One of the next questions concerned the group of criminal behaviour motives referring directly to a juvenile offender. The group included biological, psychological, physiological and medical character etc. (graph no.4).

graph no. 4

Graph no.4. The motives for criminal behaviour connected with juveniles

According to the respondents main motives for criminal behaviour are low self-esteem of adolescents (123 respondents, i.e. 64%) and the lack of feeling of love and acceptance (10 respondents, i.e. 55%). The mentioned above factors make young people search for acceptance in environments other than a family or a school, unfortunately they most often look for it in groups of negative character. Adolescents consider boredom, curiosity (59 respondents, i.e. 31%), or the need for new experiences and sensations that accompany committing criminal acts (52 students, i.e. 27%) the most frequent motives for criminal behaviour. Considerably fewer respondents (56 respondents, i.e. 29%) pointed out typically endogenous factors, such as: illnesses, developmental and psychical disorders etc. The surveyed adolescents also indicated problems at school (42 respondents, i.e. 22%) as the cause of juvenile crime. In their opinion juvenile offenders achieve low school results which negatively influences their behaviour, creates difficulties in complying with a school’s standards and rules and in functioning in a class considered a formal group. Lower level of knowledge, inappropriate behaviour, repeating of school years etc. may be frustrating. This is why such students undertake various actions in order to vent their frustration and anger.

3. Conclusions

Analysing causes of juvenile delinquency it is hard to determine specifically which factor  has an dominant impact on this process. The factors often accumulate, resulting in difficulties in determining which cause was primal and which was secondary in its character. This has been confirmed by outlined in the following work results of the research on the way of the  lower secondary school students’ perception of the determinants of juvenile delinquency. The gained results of the study help us state that the surveyed secondary school students note the problem of juvenile delinquency and are aware of the social and individual dangers connected with it. They consider exogenous factors, especially of macro-social and  micro-social character, the main sources of juvenile delinquency. The main macro-social determinants of juvenile delinquency, according to the questioned youth, are addictions (alcohol, drugs) and poverty. A key educational environment that causes criminal behaviour among young people are peer groups and a family. The students blame personal determinants connected with one’s intellectual and socio-moral development or with one’s possible personality disorders etc. in less degree. Among the factors associated personally with a juvenile offender they pointed out his/her low self-esteem and the feeling of lack of love in his/her family environment and the lack of acceptance in his/her peer and school environment. These factors, as it was mentioned earlier, determines themselves mutually and in consequence there is often a genetic cause, rather than a simple causal explanation of juvenile criminal behaviour. The survey study of  the lower secondary school students on the issue of juvenile delinquency, including its psycho-social determinants, should be the starting point of effective preventive actions, whose essence is to counteract threats of social maladjustment and criminal behaviour. Hence, conducting further research and analyses in this subject are highly recommended.

[i] “Dr Ewa Kochanowska is a lecturer at the Technical-Humanistic Academy in Bielsko-Biała in Poland

[ii] See: Kołakowska-Przełomiec H. (1977), Przestępczość nieletnich (Eng. Juvenile Delinquency), [in:] Kryminologia (Eng. Criminology), ed. W. Świda, Warsaw 1977, PWN, p. 175.

[iii] Biel K. (2008), Przestępczość dziewcząt. Rodzaje, uwarunkowania (Eng. Delinquency of Juvenile Girls. Types and Determinants), Cracow, WAM

[iv] www.statystyka.policja.pl (status dated August 09, 2013) However, it should be noted that the statistics of the Polish Police Headquarters show that in  2012 the number of juveniles suspected of committing various types of crime was reduced by 6 000 in comparison to the previous year. In 2012, the police recorded 43 847 such juveniles that is over 5 807 fewer than in the previous year. It is a 11.7 percent decrease. Juveniles were suspected of committing 94 186 criminal offences – it is also less than in 2011 (a decrease of 3.4%). The decrease affected all types of crime. In the case of juvenile crime we cannot forget about crimes related to alcohol or drug addiction, in connection with which one observes increasing tendency.

[v] Compare with: Hołyst B., Hołyst B. (2000), Kryminologia (Eng. Criminology), Warsaw, Wydawnictwo Prawnicze PWN, p. 444.

[vi] Compare with: Hołyst B. (1994), Kryminologia (Eng. Criminology), Warsaw, PWN, p. 601.

[vii] According to The Act on Juvenile Delinquency Proceedings of 26 October 1982 (Dz.U.(Journal of Laws) vol. 35, item 228), when using the term “juvenile”, we must distinguish between two definitions:
1)       Juveniles, understood  in the terms of law and penalty, i.e. according to the terminology of  the Criminal Code, are individuals under the age of 17 (art. 10 § 1, Criminal Code). They can be divided into two groups: a) juveniles unable to bear the blame and simultaneously to commit  a crime (art. 1 § 3, Criminal Code), but who commit an act of offence prohibited under the threat of penalty (art. 1§ 1, Criminal Code); b) juveniles who may take responsibility for committing certain crimes defined in the Article 1 of the Criminal Code.
2)       Juveniles, in procedural-educational meaning, who can be classified in three groups: individuals under the age of 18 manifesting signs of demoralization; b) individuals who committed an offence after reaching 13 years and  are still under the age of 17; c) individuals until reaching 21 to whom court applied educational – rehabilitative measures.

[viii] An offence in the terms of the Act on Juvenile Delinquency Proceeding, is an act prohibited by the Act, as a crime or tax offence or as an offence defined in the articles of the Code of Offences (art. 1 § 2 pos. 2). Whereas, a crime is a socially dangerous act with statuory features of prohibited act, unlawful, culpable, and threatened by a penalty defined in the Act. See: W. Świda (1982), Prawo karne (Eng. Penal Law), Warsaw, PWN.

[ix] The phenomenon of juvenile delinquency in the view of  selected criminological concepts and theories is being discussed, inter alia, by: Ostrowska K. (1981), Psychologiczne determinanty przestępczości młodocianych. Analiza kryminologiczna (Eng. Psychological Determinants of Juvenile Delinquency. The Criminological Analysis), Warsaw, PWN; Ostrowska, Wójcik D., Teorie kryminologiczne (Eng. Criminological Theories), ATK, Warsaw 1986,; A. Siemaszko, Granice tolerancji. O teoriach zachowań dewiacyjnych (Eng. Limitations of Tolerance. On the Theories of Deviant Behaviours), Warsaw 1993; J. Stanik M. (2007), Wybrane koncepcje i wyniki badań kryminologicznych a perspektywy resocjalizacji (Eng. Selected Concepts and Results of Criminological Studies in the View of Perspectives of Resocialization), [in:] Resocjalizacja. Teoria i praktyka pedagogiczna (Eng. Resocialization. Pedagogical Theory and Practice), ed. J. M. Stanik, B. Urban, Warsaw, PWN.

[x] Translator’s note:  In the Polish system of education, lower secondary schools (so-called: gymnasiums) are schools for children  between the ages of 13 and 16.

[xi]Maurer A. (1985), Wiek dorastania (Eng. The Age of Maturing)  [in:] Słownik psychologiczny (Eng. Dictionary of Psychology), ed. W. Szewczuk, Warsaw, Wiedza Powszechna, p. 343.

[xii] The studies on juvenile delinquency were carried out by students of pedagogy under the supervision of the author of the following article as a part of their diploma seminar. The text presents the selected aspect of the studied issue referring to perception of psychosocial determinants of juvenile delinquency.

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