Youth crime, or juvenile delinquency, is illegal behaviour committed by a juvenile (generally from age 10 to 17 years) that would be recognized as a crime in adult justice system. It also includes status offences (like underage drinking or smoking) considered an offence because of the young age of the perpetrator.
The question sometimes arises of whether a young criminal should be “disadvantaged” in later life because of an early offence. The general consensus is that youth should not be disadvantaged. Why?
Youth crime is a transitory behaviour
The first reason that youth should not be disadvantaged later in life is that youth crime is generally a transitory behaviour that does not continue into adult life. Generally offenders “grow out” of the behaviour although the rate of growth varies. The statistics show that some 60 to 80% of youth are involved in crime but that many commit just one or two non-violent crimes and do not repeat beyond adolescence. Typically those who offender earliest are likely to be those who continue into adult life and are the hard core who are responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime (see the report from the Australian Institute of Criminology What makes Juvenile offenders different from adult offenders?). Thus most youth go on to be law abiding citizens positively contributing to society.
Youth crime is generally non-violent and minor
Secondly youth should be protected from long lasting consequences since youth crime is not only a short-lived behaviour, but it is often relatively minor. Most juvenile offences are offences against property rather than people. The crimes of youth include offences such as graffiti, vandalism, shoplifting and fare evasion. Motor vehicle theft and road offences are also represented, although serious offences, like sexual and homicide, are rarely seen in youth crime. The severity of offences committed by youths are usually less than those committed by adults.
Youth crime is influenced by developmental factors
Thirdly, youth should be protected from lasting consequences because their illegal behaviour can often be explained by their stage of personal development. Youth are susceptible to peer pressure more than adults and engage in risk-taking behaviour for a variety of reasons associated with their social environment and physical development. When these factors change the person behaves in a different way, thus long lasting punishment or disadvantage is not necessary to correct the individual’s behaviour.
Many steps are taken to protect youth from lasting consequences of crime. Disadvantage due to criminal past is sometimes known as “Collateral consequence of criminal conviction” the “Four Cs” of criminal charges. These disadvantages are “invisible” repercussions of crime that are scattered through laws and which may last for years after conviction and prison sentences have been finished. They potentially make it hard to gain employment, buy a home, obtain custody over children, travel, immigrate and present many barriers to community integration.
In an attempt to protect youth from the four Cs there are often prohibitions on naming juvenile offenders in court, or suppression orders can make sure that the name is not disclosed. In some instances a crime may not even be recorded. In particular, individuals who participate in restorative justice (apologising to the victim or paying restitution) may not have their conviction recorded. There is also a drive not to label offenders as “criminals” since this will hamper them growing out of the phase and entrap them in a life of crime, thus many convictions of juveniles are just not recorded.
Juvenile or youth crime is a special case of crime that is treated separately from adults by the justice system. There is a far greater effort to make sure that youth are not disadvantaged for life from their adolescent behaviours. A few hard core perpetrators will continue into adult life and there they will receive adult penalty along with the “invisible” consequences of crime, that can impact them economically, socially and practically.
While youth can be protected from lasting barriers to normal community integration because of their juvenile behaviour, they cannot be protected from the more personal consequences of crime that they may experience (e.g. long term injury sustained while recklessly driving a stolen car, sexual disease contracted from underage sex, lasting physical trauma from substance abuse and so on). These “natural” consequences of illegal behaviour will remain with the individual for life as a constant reminder of their out-of-contol “adolescent” development.