Understanding Juvenile Delinquency: The Rational Choice Theory and Its Application


Juvenile delinquency for a very long time has been an important area of study by scholars and policy makers. Juvenile delinquency is defined as an illegal act by a minor that is one who falls under the statutory age limit, usually between the ages of 10-18. Delinquent acts may involve crimes such as murder and acts that are permissible to adults but not to the minors, also known as status offences.

The most frequently asked question is why a child would act contrary to the societal norms and expectations. Why do some young people get into criminal activities that persist into their adulthood? Are these actions a result of environmental factors? Are they social or economic factors? In an attempt to answer these questions different arguments have been put forward. Scholars have come up with a number of theories to explain the cause of juvenile misbehavior. One of the major theories in this regard is the rational choice theory. This paper will, therefore, attempt to look at the theory, its origin, its relation to juvenile delinquency and how it can help in understanding a social delinquent.

Rational Choice Theory

Rational choice theory as an explanation of delinquency states that, as an individual, a minor, would weigh on whether his/her misbehavior would happen again over the risks involved such as punishment. It also suggests that a rational person makes a choice of committing an unlawful act after evaluating the risks involved and the benefits derived from his/her actions. An early proponent of the theory was Gary Becker, an economist who later became a Nobel laureate. The theory has been applied in various fields of study including sociology (Abell, 2009).

The study revealed that most crimes committed by the youth are conducted mainly by lone operators, suggesting that they tend to act as individuals. They are motivated by individual emotions and ego. Furthermore, where delinquents engage as a crowd, it is most probably an attempt to find social standing in the society among their peers. This is for their peers to admire them as risk takers. The argument forwarded here is that delinquents are not social, and social issues are not responsible for their misbehavior. Some theorists argue that it is in the individual that delinquency is rooted. The rational choice theory explains that it is the individual who makes the decision (Siegel & Welsh, 2012).

The theory proclaims that an individual chooses to misbehave to gain something physically or emotionally. It does not matter what kind of misbehavior they are involved in. It could be violence, drug abuse, total disregard to authority, and theft. Delinquents are motivated by the idea that their unlawful actions are beneficial and do not involve any risk. They are not perturbed by the fact that they may be caught and if caught -prosecuted. They may be motivated by the desire for wealth while some may do it for self-gratification, which is short, or to enjoy the excitement produced by delinquency such as throwing a stone into a group of other young people (Siegel & Welsh, 2012).

However, not all juvenile delinquent acts can be attributed to logical thought and choice. Some youths act in a selfish, irrational or hedonistic manner. Those who hold this view argue that some of the delinquencies among the youth are as a result of physical or psychological trait rather than acts of rational thinking and choice. This does not mean that rational choice theory is erroneous, but rather it acknowledges that some youths engage in unlawful acts driven by abnormalities in their body biology and/or psychology. For example, genetic defects, hyperactivity or biochemical imbalance may trigger juvenile delinquency (Eriksson, 2011).

Routine Activity

According to the routine activity theory that was first put forward by Lawrence Cohen and Marcus Felson, the distribution and quantity of predatory crime are determined by three factors; that is inadequate guardianship, availability of easy and suitable target and the presence of an offender (motivated one). That predatory crime is most likely to occur where all the elements are present. The presence of an authority figure at home to protect them and their possessions can reduce the urge and motivation to commit a felony. Even those that are highly motivated to act illegally may ignore valuable target if they are well protected. Similarly, protected private homes and businesses may be considered inaccessible and off-limit to would-be offenders (Siegel & Welsh, 2012).

The theory proposes that availability of easy places and things that are accessible and can be easily transported may increase delinquency. A place equipped with highly valuable commodities will most likely fall to burglary and theft. This is something that has been supported by research to that extent. The more high-priced, easily transported, easily resold are the objects, the more there will be offenders who are motivated to make easy profits by stealing. High number of motivated offenders will increase the number of delinquents. This may be due to factors such as scarcity of resources and lack of employment. This causes competition among the youth for the available resources and job opportunities (Eriksson, 2011).

Controlling Delinquency

In agreeing that delinquency is a matter of rational choice rather than controlling it will involve convincing potential offenders that they will be sternly punished for their acts of delinquency. Secondly, punishing such offenders must be done to the extent that they will never dare to commit such offence again. Thirdly, measures must be taken to make it difficult to commit any crime and by making sure that what is to be achieved does not warrant the possible risk. The above guidelines lead to four control strategies. These include general deterrence, specific deterrence, incapacitation, and situational crime prevention (Siegel & Welsh, 2012).

General Deterrence

This is a concept that states that the decision to commit an illegal act is anchored by the threat of being punished. If one believes that nothing will happen even if they do not do the right thing or commit a crime, then the possibility of committing the unlawful act is high. It is contrary the situation when severe punishment is applied for committing a crime. To this extent then, only those unable to think through the issue may commit the crime. The proponents of the theory assert that the more severe the punishment, the greater the chances of the individual not committing an offence; thus it gives a greater resultant effect. The actual chance of being apprehended and jailed will have minimal effect on the rate of crime, especially if the young people believe that their chances to undergo that punishment are minimal (Sachar, 2009).

The strategy of deterring crime by the fear of being punished may be argued to contravene with juvenile justice. However, the rising rate of teenagers involved in gang acts, violence, robbery, drug and substance abuse have resulted into the re-thinking of such principles. This has resulted in the deployment of more security personnel in the streets and allowing them to be aggressive while enforcing the law. Juvenile courts also start to operate upon the strategy of deterrence. The courts have become more willing to waive young offenders to adult courts (Lichbach, 2008).

Another aspect of deterrence that seems to have an impact on juveniles is shame, embarrassment and humiliation. If young people are afraid of being rejected by their families and friends, they will not misbehave with such an ease. Those who commit offences and are humiliated will most likely not repeat such offence than those forgiven and accepted back (Siegel & Welsh, 2012).

Since deterrence strategies are based on the idea that the possible offenders are rational and calculating people, they may not work when applied to an immature person. Most of the offenders may be suffering from mental illnesses or drug abuse. This reduces their reasoning capacity. They may be impulsive rather than imprudent. People who are high risk offenders may not be deterred by the possibility of getting punished. People with low income will have very little to lose even if they are imprisoned. Therefore, committing and recommitting crime will be the order of the day for them. Additionally, those who have gone through the penitentiary may not be deterred with the fear of being apprehended again. Greg Pogarsky and his associates have found that multiple arrests give little deterrence to the youth and that those who have experienced punishment were the ones to be the next offenders (Eriksson, 2011).

Specific Deterrence

The strategy involves punishment of well-known offenders so severely that they will never have the desire to commit such offences in the future. It argues that if the punishment meted on the offender is too painful then a rational person would not commit it again. Application of this strategy may involve being placed in a juvenile detention facility. However, it may also (just like general deterrence) be difficult to apply as it may harden the offender thus increasing the reoffending frequencies (Sachar, 2009).


This strategy involves the attempt to reduce crimes by denying possible offenders’ chances of committing an illegal act. This is for those that cannot be controlled through normal and specific deterrence and involves putting the offenders behind bars for a very long time. It is not good in the sense that the offenders are subjected to longer periods of jail than needed (Lichbach, 2008).

Gun Violence: Juvenile Delinquency

Incidences of gun violence among the youth in the country are on the rise. This in itself is a serious danger to the society, and in some states, an offender may be tried as an adult. An increase in this kind of offence can be linked to a number of issues that have been suggested by the rational choice theory. In an incident on July 6, 2004, a young man by the name Cody had killed his father, stepmother and step sister. When trying to find why he did it he admitted that he got a gun from his sister’s saddle-bag and returned home with the intention to kill his father. After killing the father, he killed the step-sister for seeing what he had done. He told the authorities that he had killed his step mum for being mean by shooting her twice in the head. This case has illustrated that delinquency is viewed as individual behavior rather than the one caused by such factors as poverty (Siegel, & Welsh, 2012).


Rational choice theory explains why delinquents act the way they do and what can be done using the same theory to control them. The theory is very much illustrated by examples of increasing teenage violence. However, while the theory is supported by facts, proponents of the theory cannot ignore the fact that other factors may be the reason why the young people misbehave (Eriksson, 2011).


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Sachar, L. (2009). Small steps. New York: Delacorte Press.
Shoemaker, D. J. (2009). Juvenile delinquency. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Siegel, L. J., & Welsh, B. (2012). Juvenile delinquency: theory, practice, and law (12th ed.).
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