The term delinquency refers to either something that is late in being done, such as making a late credit card payment, or to improper or criminal behavior. In a legal context, delinquency is most often used in reference to the disorderly or illegal actions engaged in by a youth. Juvenile delinquency is grouped into two categories, one more serious than the next.  To explore this concept, consider the following delinquency definition.

Definition of Delinquency


  1. Failure or neglect of duty or obligation
  2. Disorderly, antisocial, or illegal behavior


1630-1640       Late Latin dēlinquentia (fault, crime)

What is Delinquency

Delinquency is criminal behavior, or acts that do not conform to the moral or legal standards of society, carried out by a minor. In the U.S., federal law defines juvenile delinquency as “the violation of a law of the United States committed by a person prior to his 18th birthday which would have been a crime if committed by an adult.” A juvenile is defined as a person who has not reached his 18th birthday, though the law specifies that a person between the ages of 18 and 21 may be prosecuted or dealt with as a juvenile delinquent, if the offense occurred prior to his 18th birthday. In the U.S., a juvenile who has committed a very serious crime, including murder, may be prosecuted as an adult, depending on the circumstances.

For example:

Maria, a 16-year old high school junior, has been in a bitter rivalry with classmate Stephanie. On a cold Saturday in February, Maria lures Stephanie into the woods, to hang out with a group of girls. Once there, friends report that Maria manages to push Stephanie over an embankment, into the freezing river running through the forest. Police determine that, not only did Maria intentionally push the girl into the river, but that she had contrived to do this weeks earlier, knowing that anyone falling into the icy waters would likely drown.

Although Maria is a juvenile, the district attorney, and the court system, may decide to charge and try her as an adult. This has to do with the heinousness of her crime. Pre-planning the murder of another person, then ruthlessly carrying it out, is likely to be seen as a very adult thing to do, especially considering Maria’s age. In this example of delinquency, the authorities may also consider whether Maria has a pattern of committing status or other offenses.

Juvenile Delinquency

Acts that constitute juvenile delinquency range from minor offenses, known as “status offenses,” such as under-age smoking and truancy, to property crimes, such as theft, to violent crimes. While recent years have seen a higher rate of arrests of juveniles, violence rates among these youth has decreased. This is because most juvenile offenses are non-violent, though, according to the Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”), youth violence remains the third leading cause of death among youth ages 10-24 years.

Status Offenses

In juvenile delinquency, a status offense is an act that is only illegal because the offender is a minor. For instance, underage drinking and running away from home are status offenses, because adults are free to pack a bag and run away from home, or sit behind the garage and drink beer, whenever they want. On average, 20 percent of juvenile arrests are for status offenses, such as:

  • Running away
  • Truancy
  • Violating local curfew
  • Underage smoking
  • Underage drinking
  • Un-governability, or being beyond parental control

For example:

Fifteen-year old Ryan has made a habit of skipping school, and hanging out at the local park with his friends. Members of the group take turns stealing alcohol from home, passing it around while they hang out. When the school police breaks up the merrymaking, Ryan is smoking a cigarette, and holding a beer. In this example of delinquency, Ryan has committed several status offenses, namely skipping school, underage drinking, and underage smoking.

How the Law Deals with Juvenile Delinquency

Beginning in the 1960s, realizing that juvenile delinquents needed help, including better supervision, in the hope of preventing a pattern of illegal activity that tended to continue into adulthood. The goals of the legal system took a turn to preserving families, ensuring public safety, and preventing youth from becoming delinquent in the first place, or from continuing to commit crimes.

Established in 1974, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (“JJDPA”) gave prosecutors in juvenile matters discretion to divert status offenses to resources outside the court system. These resources are deemed better-equipped to help troubled youth, and diverting status cases avoids labeling the youth as a “delinquent.”

This forward-looking view on delinquent behavior in youth, seeing them as children in need of supervision, care, or other services, means that only 20 percent of status offenses are processed by the juvenile courts. This is largely because law enforcement officers, in adhering to modern guidelines and ideas, are differentiating between status offenses, which are viewed as calls for help, and serious delinquent behaviors.

The Role of Police Officers in Juvenile Delinquency

As the law enforcement community has become deeply burdened in recent decades, the issue of dealing with juvenile issues becomes both crucial, and taxing on resources. How police officers should deal with youthful trouble-makers can be confusing, and the rules sometimes seem contradictory. The fact remains, however, that juveniles are responsible for a large number of offenses for which patrol officers are the first point of contact.

Because of the system imposed by the JJDPA, officers must give greater consideration to the offenses engaged in by juveniles, the motivations of the youth committing those offenses, and other circumstances, before deciding what action to take. These choices include:

  • Doing nothing, warning the youth and letting him go
  • Taking the youth into custody, to be released to his parents
  • Referring the youth to an alternative program
  • Arresting the youth, or referring him to juvenile court

Violent delinquency takes away the police officer’s discretion in most circumstances, as protecting the public remains a primary goal of the legal system. In many jurisdictions, police officers do not need probable cause to take a juvenile into custody, though if a youth is to be taken into custody and routed through the juvenile court system, there must generally be reasonable suspicion or probable cause.

For example:

Officer Smith is called to a clothing store in the mall, where two 13-year old girls are being detained for shoplifting nail polish. In talking to the girls, as well as to store security, Officer Smith decides that this is likely the first time the girls have been in this kind of trouble.

Considering all of the circumstances, the officer must decide what to do with the youthful offenders – arrest them, and charge them with theft, or call their parents to come collect them. In this example of delinquency, even if Officer Smith releases the girls to their parents, he must decide whether to refer them to an alternative program, or to simply allow the parents to deal with the issue.

Penalties for Delinquency Status Offenses

Penalties for delinquency when juveniles commit status offenses varies, both by jurisdiction, and by the specific circumstances surrounding the act. Police have a great deal of discretion when it comes to dealing with juvenile delinquents.

  • Violation of Curfew – varies by jurisdiction, though in most cases, police bring the youthful violators to a center where their parents must pick them up. In many cases, police officers may issue warnings, and take the minor home.
  • Truancy – students who skip school without a valid excuse, and without their parents’ knowledge, are considered truant. Penalties for truancy vary by jurisdiction, and even by school district. Truant youth committing other status crimes are dealt with more severely, with penalties ranging from the issuance of a warning, to both student and parents, to referral to social services or the juvenile court system.

Most states are taking a hard line on truancy, as studies show that truancy and the likelihood of future delinquency are strongly connected. Juveniles who do go through the court system for more serious status offenses, or for multiple or continuing status offenses may face such penalties as:

  • Being required to attend counseling, or a specialized education program
  • Being required to pay a fine or restitution
  • Suspension of the youth’s driver’s license or driving privileges
  • Being removed from the parents’ care, and placed with another care-giver, whether a relative, group home, or foster home

A young person who violates his court-ordered penalties, whether refusing to attend counseling, driving without a license, or running away from his caregivers, may end up in a locked juvenile detention facility.

Juvenile Delinquency Statistics

The following juvenile delinquency statistics are taken from the National Center for Juvenile Justice’s (“NCJJ”) Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 2014 National Report:

Fear of Violent Delinquency at School:

  • 30% of high schools were involved in physical fights in a single school year, 4% of which were treated for their injuries
  • An average of 6% of high school students missed school because they felt unsafe, either at school, or on the way to and from school
  • An average of 5% of high school students admitted to having carried a weapon on school property, whether a gun, knife, or other weapon. Students in the state of Georgia reported the highest incidence at about 12%.
  • An average of 7% of high school students reported having been injured by, or threatened with, a weapon at school.

Drug and Alcohol Use among Youth:

  • 48% of all high school seniors reported having used illicit drugs
  • 44% of all high school seniors reported having used marijuana, making it the most commonly used illicit drug among youth
  • 71% of all high school seniors reported having used alcohol
  • Drug and alcohol use is more prevalent among white students than black or Hispanic students, at 45%, vs. 31% of black students, and 40% of Hispanic students.
  • Drug and alcohol use among high school students peaked in the early 1980s

Gang Activity Among Youth:

  • Youth gangs are composed overwhelmingly of males, at 92%, vs. 7% females
  • Racial composition of youth gangs seems to hold steady at 50% Hispanic, 30% black, 10% white, 10% other races
  • 80% of all gang activity is reported in large cities

Murders Involving Youth Offenders:

  • Approximately 8% of all murders in the U.S. involve juvenile offenders
  • The number of murders committed by juvenile offenders dropped sharply from nearly 1,400 in 1993, to about 400 in 2010
  • In 2010, juvenile homicide offenders were racially comprised of 63% black youths, 35% white youths, and 3% other races

Effect of Penalties on Repeated Offenses:

  • Longer sentences (greater than 3 months) at a juvenile facility do not reduce the number of subsequent arrests. Rather, the quality of youth services, and degree to which those services are matched to each individual’s needs see the greatest success.

Delinquency Example of Juvenile Court System Conviction

In 2009, 26-year old Kenzie Houk, who was 8 months pregnant, was shot and killed in her bed. Following a brief police investigation, her 11-year old step son, Jordan Brown, was arrested and charged with two counts of first degree murder. Jordan was initially charged as an adult, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered that his case be moved to the juvenile court system.

During the 3-day trial, prosecutors spun a tale in which Jordan hid his youth model 20-guage shotgun under a blanket, entered Kenzie’s bedroom, then shot her in the back of the head as she slept. After that, prosecutors said, Jordan walked to the school bus stop with his 7-year old step-sister. There were no eye witnesses, though the step-sister eventually told officials she had heard a loud “boom” prior to leaving for school with Jordan, and police found the gun, covered with a blanket that had a quarter-sized hole in it.

Juvenile Court judge John Hodge ruled, on Friday the 13th of April, 2012, that Jordan was delinquent in the killing of both Kenzie and her unborn child. In his ruling, based on just 3 days of testimony and evidence presentation, Judge Hodge alluded to his belief that Jordan must have committed the murders because nobody else could have entered the home and killed Kenzie in the 45 minutes between the time Jordan and the girl had left for school, and when Kenzie’s 3-year old daughter found her.

The evidence showed that the only footprints in the snow observed by police led from the house to the school bus stop. Jordan’s attorneys accuse police of failing to even check for footprints outside other entrances into the house. The complete lack of gunshot residue on Jordan, and lack of blood, tissue, and other biological evidence, both on Jordan, and on his gun, further convince Jordan’s attorneys and supporters that he is innocent of the terrible crime.

Because Jordan was tried and convicted of “delinquency,” the juvenile court’s equivalent of “guilty,” in juvenile court, neither the death penalty, nor life imprisonment without possibility of parole, were options in sentencing. Instead, Jordan was sentenced to remain in a juvenile detention facility until he turns 21.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Fine – An amount of money ordered by the court to be paid as punishment for an offense.
  • Juvenile Facility – A secure residential facility holding youthful offenders, both while awaiting trial, and who require a restricted environment for their own, and the community’s, safety.
  • Restitution – The restoration of rights or property previously taken away or surrendered; reparation made by giving compensation for loss or injury caused by wrongdoing.