The cliché that “birds of a feather flock together” has special relevance for the social situation of delinquents. Alienated from society, they tend to form groups. Although non-delinquent teenagers also form gangs, delinquents are far likelier to do so. They are impelled by the need to belong and are drawn by the sense of security that a gang offers its members. In belonging to a gang there is a solidarity that an individual fails to find as a loner in society. Gang subculture has its own standards, obligations and rights. It may also have its own dress code.
Not all teens involved in a crime together are acting as a gang, however. In a well-publicized incident in 1989 a group of youths ages 14 to 16 raped and nearly murdered a young woman jogging in New York City’s Central Park; they said they were “wilding”, roaming the park with no purpose but to create havoc and hurt people. Many schools are no safer than the streets; by 1990 it was estimated that more than three million incidents of attempted street crime (assault, rape, robbery, or theft) occur in schools or on school property each year. As more students carry weapons, more schools have instituted tough security measures.
Society tries to deal with youthful offenders in a variety of ways. The most common unofficial means are through school counselling and sessions with psychologists and psychiatrists. Social workers who deal with family problems also attempt to sort out the differences of young potential delinquents.
Serious offences are dealt with officially by the police and the courts. Because of the nature of some of the offences committed by juveniles, there has been a tendency to try them in court as adults for certain crimes, especially for murder. The juvenile courts attempt to steer young people away from a life of crime, though the most serious offences normally result in periods of confinement in juvenile halls or prisons for younger criminals. If possible, however, the courts try more lenient methods of probation, juvenile aftercare, or foster care.
Probation means that the court suspends sentence and releases the offender on the condition of good behaviour, subject to certain rules and under the supervision of the court. Probation is frequently granted to first-time offenders.
Sometimes in order to avoid bringing a case before the court, informal probation under the supervision of a probation officer is prescribed. Probation has proved to be the most successful way of dealing with very young offenders.
Juvenile aftercare is the equivalent of parole for an older criminal; it takes place after the young person has been released from an institution and is supervised by a youth counsellor. The purpose of aftercare is to promote readjustment to society.
In foster care the juvenile is placed in a stable family situation with the hope that he will adjust to the positive values of society. It is often part of an effort to prevent institutionalisation.
Many delinquents come from homes where the parents abuse alcohol or drugs or are themselves criminals. Poverty, physical and verbal abuse, parents with little respect for themselves, and erratic discipline patterns emerge as contributing factors in such research. Beatings by parents or others can cause injuries to the brain, which in turn frequently cause neurological problems, paranoia, hallucinations or violent behaviour.