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Neutralization Theory in Criminology and Juvenile Crime

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    Neutralization Theory in Criminology and Juvenile Crime

                There can be no doubt that juvenile crime is a problem the world over.  In Britain the case of two ten year old boys killing a three year old boy is famous.  In 1999, two American high school seniors were responsible for the Columbine massacre. In South Africa, crimes committed by scholars in school grounds are common. These are the famous cases, and indeed there are many cases that are not made public.

    Why is the incidence of juvenile crime so high, and what can be done about it?  There are a number of theories surrounding this.

    This paper aims to look at these questions and look in particular at one theory – neutralization theory.  Let’s take a look at some statistics regarding juvenile crime in order to assess the nature of the problem that the world is facing.

                There are currently about 70 million Americans under the age of 18, or a quarter of the total US population. Of these, juvenile crime statistics report that 2.3 million juveniles were arrested in 2002. This accounts for 17 percent of all arrests and 15 to 25 percent of all violent crimes. According to juvenile crime statistics, murder accounted for five percent of violent crimes committed by juveniles, 12 percent for rape, 14 percent for robbery, and 12 percent for aggravated assault. (Online Lawyer Source, 2006)

    According to 1997 juvenile crime statistics, 1700 juveniles were involved in 1400 murders that year. One hundred thirty of these murders were perpetrated by a female. Approximately eighty percent of juvenile murders involve the use of a firearm. Forty percent of these crimes involve two or more juvenile offenders. Fifty six percent of the victims in these crimes are acquaintances of the murderer and 34 percent are strangers. (Online Lawyer Source, 2006)

    Juvenile crime statistics show that crimes committed by juveniles are most likely to occur on school days in the hours immediately following the end of a school day. On non-school days juvenile crimes are most likely to occur between the hours of eight and ten at night. Between 1993 and 2002, juvenile crime statistics rates for drunken driving offenses increased by 46 percent, with a very dramatic increase for female offenders (an increase of 94 percent versus 37 percent for male offenders).  (Online Lawyer Source, 2006)

    Roughly half of all youth arrests are made on account of theft, simple assault, drug abuse, disorderly conduct and curfew violations. OJJDP statistics show theft as the greatest cause of youth arrests. In 1999, 2,468,800 juvenile arrests were recorded; of these, 380,500 were arrests for theft. In 2000, 2,369,400 arrests were recorded; of these, 363,500 were for theft. Drug abuse violations accounted for 198,400 of the 1999 arrests, and 203,900 of the 2000 arrests. Juvenile crime accounted for 103,900 of the 1999 arrests and 98,900 of the 2000 arrests. Across the board arrest rates dropped 5% between 1999 and 2000.  (Juvenile Justice, FYI, 2006)

    These statistics reveal that the incidence of juvenile crime is high, something which is not really a big surprise to anybody who is a regular reader of newspapers.  On a daily basis we hear of atrocities which have occurred.

    There are some theories which exist around this, regarding why it happens so much and what can be done about it.  Some theories in criminology believe that criminality is a function of individual socialization, how individuals have been influenced by their experiences or relationships with family relationships, peer groups, teachers, church, authority figures, and other agents of socialization.  These are called learning theories, and specifically social learning theories, because criminology never really embraced the psychological determinism inherent in most learning psychologies.  They are also less concerned for the content of what is learned (like cultural deviance theories), and more concerned with explaining the social process by which anyone, regardless of race, class, or gender, would have the potential to become a criminal.  Social Learning, Control, and Labeling theories are all examples of social process theories.  (Hale, 2006)

    These theories include neutralization theory.  Gresham Sykes and David Matza’s neutralization theory explains how deviants justified their deviant behaviors by adjusting the definitions of their actions and by explaining to themselves and others the lack of guilt of their actions in particular situations. (Wikipedia, 2006)

    There are five different types of rationalizations, which are the denial of responsibility, the denial of injury, the denial of the victim, the condemnation of the condemners, and the appeal to higher loyalties. (Wikipedia, 2006)

    The denial of responsibility is the argument that the deviant was helplessly propelled into the deviance, and that under the same circumstances, any other person would resort to similar actions. The denial of injury is the argument that the deviant did not hurt anyone, and thus the deviance is not morally wrong, due to the fundamental belief that the action caused no harm to other individuals or to the society. The denial of the victim is the argument that possible individuals on the receiving end of the deviance were not injured, but rather experiences righteous force, due to the victim’s lack of virtue or morals. The condemnation of the condemners is the act by which the deviant accuses authority figures or victims for having the tendency to be equally deviant, and as a result, hypocrites. Finally, the appeal to higher loyalties is the belief that there are loyalties and values that go beyond the confines of the law; friendships and traditions are more important to the deviant than legal boundaries. (Wikipedia, 2006)

    According to Sykes and Matza, delinquents hold values, beliefs, and attitudes very similar to those of law-abiding citizens. In fact, they feel obligated to be bound by law. Then, if bound by law, how can they justify their delinquent activities? The answer is that they learn “techniques” which enable them to “neutralize” such values and attitudes temporarily and thus drift back and forth between legitimate and illegitimate behaviors. They maintain that at times delinquents participate in conventional activities and shun such activity while engaging in criminal acts. Such a theory proposes that delinquents disregard controlling influences of rules and values and use these techniques of neutralization to “weaken” the hold society places over them. In other words, these techniques act as defense mechanisms that release the delinquent from the constraints associated with moral order. (Criminological Theory, 2006)

    In Delinquency and Drift (1964), David Matza suggested that people live their lives on a continuum somewhere between total freedom and total restraint. The process by which a person moves from one extreme of behavior to another extreme is called drift, and this is the very foundation of his theory.  (Criminological Theory, 2006)

    Along with Sykes, Matza rejected the notion that subcultures of delinquency maintain an independent set of values than the dominant culture. They hold that delinquents actually do appreciate culturally held goals and expectations of the middle-class, but feel that engaging in such behavior would be frowned upon by their peers. Such beliefs remain almost unconscious, or subterranean, because delinquents fear expressing such beliefs to peers. (Criminological Theory, 2006)

    This suggests that deviants do have a sense of morality, i.e. they do know what is right and wrong.  So why then do they persist in committing crimes?  Perhaps they rationalize what it is that they’re going to do (all the other guys are going to do it too, so it must be alright). This can be compared to a situation of a group of teenagers taking drugs. In all probability one teenager alone would not take drugs. But in a group, the same teen may not have the same sense of conviction.  In a group, bravado may prevail – the shame a teenager may feel in being an “outcast” outweighs the shame he feels in doing something that he knows is wrong, i.e. taking drugs.

    To cite an example of how criminals “neutralize” crimes, take the impact that an urban legend has in South Africa, a country where the instance of AIDS and HIV is exceptionally high. The urban legend tells people that HIV and AIDS can be cured by sleeping with a virgin (something which is completely untrue, dangerous and irresponsible).  This has led to a high instance of the raping of babies and little girls. The criminals “rationalize” what they have done by saying that they were told they could get rid of AIDS this way.

    Attempts have been made to rationalize the crime committed by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Columbine High in 1999.  Research indicates that chronic targets of peer harassment become increasingly withdrawn and depressed. The other, much less common reaction to bullying is hostility and aggression. Why did Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold have this more extreme reaction? It seems that bullying and victimization were not just individual phenomena; they were part of the school culture at Columbine High. One former student reported “a lot of tension between groups…almost continuous conflict, anything from verbal abuse to physical attacks and violence.” Indeed, recent research suggests that peer harassment is highly prevalent in secondary schools in the United States. In line with this finding, Columbine students said teachers and staff did not seem to notice the bullying and aggression; apparently such behaviors were culturally normative.  Developmental studies show that, in elementary school bullies and their victims are disliked by other children. Juvonen’s research indicates that by middle school, however, victims are still disliked, but bullies have achieved social status. Indeed, Harris and Klebold noted with anger that some of the high-status jock bullies, convicted of burglary, received an especially lenient sentence.  (Greenfield and Juvonen, 1999)

    Parents are another important factor in the total equation. What can we say about parents who have bombs being manufactured in their home by their son? Research has shown a strong link between high-risk behavior in teens and parents who basically do not know what their children are doing. In other words, nosier, more intrusive parenting seems to be a protective factor against risky, dangerous teen behavior. It appears from all accounts that this protective factor was lacking in the parenting environment of Harris and Klebold.  (Greenfield and Juvonen, 1999)

    The understanding of the neutralization theory by professionals in criminology and psychology may be what is needed to be used in the prevention of juvenile crime.  For example, parents and school psychologists could encourage their children to share feelings with adults and to befriend other children who are morally strong. In children whose families are lacking the guidance of good parents, schools and guidance counselors could act as adults in whom children could confide. Certainly action needs to be taken, and by using the knowledge that this theory provides us with, we can take proactive measures in order to try and reduce the instances of crime.


    Criminological Theory, 2006, retrieved 17 Oct 2005 from the website

    Greenfield and Juvonen, 1999, A Developmental Look at Columbine, retrieved 17 Oct 2006 from the website

    Hale, 2006, “Learning Theories of Crime” retrieved 17 Oct 2006 from the website

    Juvenile Justice FYI, 2006, retrieved 17 Oct 2006 from the website

    Online Lawyer Source, 2006, retrieved 17 Oct 2006 from the website

    Wikipedia, 2006, “Deviant Behavior” retrieved 17 Oct 2006 from the website

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    How do juvenile delinquents neutralize the influence of the law on their behavior?
    By placing blame elsewhere, delinquents can neutralize their feelings that their actions were wrong. Appeal to higher loyalties: Young delinquents often feel the strain of who to place their loyalties to. They are often torn between social groups and abiding the law.
    How does neutralization theory apply to criminal offending?
    Neutralization theory was developed as means for explaining how criminal offenders engage in rule-breaking activity while negating their culpability, or blame.
    What is neutralization theory in delinquency?
    Neutralization theory, advanced by the American criminologists David Cressey, Gresham Sykes, and David Matza, portrays the delinquent as an individual who subscribes generally to the morals of society but who is able to justify his own delinquent behaviour through a process of “neutralization,” whereby the…

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