The controversy surrounding the extent and causation of delinquency would be eliminated if a uniform meaning could be attributed to the term delinquency. This word however is not used in a uniform manner not only among individuals but also consistently by a single individual. Juvenile delinquency means and represents many things to many individuals. To the police, a delinquent juvenile may be an underage criminal; to the school authorities, the rude boy who smokes in the washroom may represent delinquency.
To parents, other people’s children who are uncontrolled are termed as delinquents while to the storekeeper, the gang of boys who loiter around may be their conception of delinquents. Even social workers and experts who work with children lack agreement on the limits of the concept. In some sectors, authorities discuss delinquency as emotionally disturbed behavior while others refer to persistently anti-social behavior. Some researchers on the other hand have defined it as a disappointing behavior beyond reasonable expectation.
This confusion with regard to the meaning of delinquency is a problem that naturally emanates from any attempt to satisfactorily define, in less descriptive sentences, a kind of social problem which is neither legal nor behavioral (Roucek*). Any definition which works for the agency, school or neighborhood is right in its own context as any other definition. However, the numerous assortments of behavior that have been referred to as delinquency do not entirely differ; they only vary in their range.
While functionally, a youth who is not liked by the neighbors may be termed delinquent in that particular neighborhood, it is within the law that the meaning of juvenile delinquency finds its ultimate basis. The legal foundation of juvenile delinquency can be traced back to the development of legal philosophy which exempted children from guilt for criminal acts. Even though the distinction between adult and child is a very old concept, the idea of juvenile courts and separate custody for young violators is a relatively new phenomenon*. Children under the age of seven years were deemed incapable of criminal acts in Roman law.
This has extended to the present period. Throughout the development of criminal law in the United States, childhood has acted as defense to criminal liability. This was founded on the assumption that a child is not capable of men’s rea. The culpability of children between seven and puberty was further distinguished by the Romans, and later the English, with the assumption being that children within this category are not capable of crimes unless there was sufficient evidence presented that they did comprehend the wrongness of their action.
An early New York statute followed this policy but was later extended to fourteen and again to sixteen. Presently, all states have increased their maximum age limit beyond puberty. The most popular age limit of childhood is eighteen, sixteen, seventeen and twenty one in that order. The pioneer court legislation of the State of Illinois is accredited with offering the first legal distinction of delinquency from crime in 1899. The definition that was used during that time is still applied in the state besides serving as a model for many other states.
According to this definition, the words “delinquent child” means “any male child under the age of seventeen years or any female child who while under the age of eighteen years, violates any law of the state; or is incorrigible, or knowingly associate with thieves, vicious or immoral persons, or without just cause and without the consent of its parents, guardians or custodian, absents itself from its home or place of abode, or is growing up in idleness or crime; or knowingly frequents a house of ill-repute; or knowingly frequents any policy shop or place where any gaming device is operated; or frequents any saloon or dram shop where intoxicating liquors are sold; or patronizes or visits any public pool room or bucket shop; or wonders about the streets in the night without being on any lawful business or lawful occupation; or habitually wonders about any railroad yards or tracks or jumps or attempts to jump onto any moving train; or enters any car or engine without lawful authority; or uses vile, obscene, vulgar, profane or indecent language in any public place or about any school house; or is guilty of indecent or lascivious conduct”*. Any child who commits any of these acts is deemed a delinquent child. Delinquency in this regard can be seen as any act committed by a child which would be a crime if committed by an adult. In this sense, delinquent behavior is restricted to violation of criminal law. The law however does not solve the differences in definition. Criminal laws vary from state to state even though there is an element of uniformity and specificity in their view of felonies. However, they are not very specific on their definitions of misdemeanors. This is just the start of the non-specificity that characterizes the definition of juvenile delinquency.
From the definition according to Illinois law, a child is defined as any male under the age of seventeen or female under the age of eighteen. This age varies from state to state with the majority considering juveniles as boys and girls under the age of eighteen. In California, one may be considered a juvenile until he or she reaches the age of twenty one. In states such as Georgia, one ceases to be a juvenile after he or she attains the age of sixteen. However, majority of the states lack any clear demarcation as one may be prosecuted as an adult for more serious crimes before attaining the upper limit of juvenile status. In Illinois, an individual may be tried as an adult criminal after he or she attains the age of ten.
In the United States, the states of New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Virginia lack an age range where there is jurisdiction of both juvenile delinquency law and adult criminal law. In the remaining states, there is variation in the duration of this period of dual jurisdiction. In Wisconsin and Indiana, it is sixteen to eighteen while in California, it is eighteen to twenty one. In law, delinquency is a much wide concept even though the terms are often used interchangeably in popular discourse. Delinquency encompasses all acts committed by a child which would be considered a crime is committed by an adult. It also encompasses a wide array of loosely defined behavior which legislators conceived of to be conducive to crime.
The law on delinquency is thus designed to bar juveniles from growing into adult criminals besides dealing with crimes committed by juveniles. Any concept that lacks a definite definition such as delinquency cannot be adequately measured. However, statistics on delinquency are compiled on local, state and national basis. When appraising the significance of such statistics, much care should be taken. Several things can be implied when referring to the quantity of delinquency in a particular area or in a given period of time. One may mean the number of juveniles; say ten to seventeen years of age, who have violated particular standards of behavior which also may not be precisely defined. Again, a reference may be made on the number of such youth who are detected in such behavior.
It may also mean the number of cases that have been handled by the official agencies and finally, it may mean the cases that have been formally heard by a juvenile court and adjudged delinquent. In the United States, the most commonly cited statistics on delinquency refer to the court cases which is the narrowest category of delinquents. The Juvenile Court Statistics which is published yearly by the Children’s Bureau of the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare contain these statistics. The compilation begun in 1923 and has undergone drastic alterations and revisions over the decades. It contains reports on the number of youth’s adjudicated delinquent and is founded on a tabulation of separate court judgments in a particular year.