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The Social Construction Of Juvenile Delinquency

2820 words - 12 pages

Critically assess the claim that juvenile delinquency was legislated into existence in the nineteenth century.

After a few preliminary comments contextualising the claim, I will;

1. Explore the changes in Legislation and Law enforcement agencies in the early to mid-nineteenth century focusing on the ways in which they contributed to the development of the concept of ‘juvenile delinquency’.

2. Consider the arguments of nineteenth century social investigators and reformers and their influence both on the legislative process and on the construction of the concept of juvenile delinquency.

3. Finally and by way of a conclusion, briefly discuss the broader social economic and political ...view middle of the document...

The concept of childhood had however been developing in parallel with the far reaching social, economic and political changes that had unfolded in Britain since the defeat of absolutism in the English civil war. By the mid nineteenth century the modern concept of childhood had evolved to the point where the majority of children received some basic education (the children of the middle classes received prolonged education) and the children of the proletariat were excluded from some forms of labour.

The concept of childhood was very much modelled on the middle classes notion of family norms and dependent children (Clarke, Shore, May). A notion that requires not just the acceptance of a particular ideological outlook, but also a degree of material security denied to the urban labouring poor, or proletariat. Once a ‘childhood’ norm is recognised as distinct from adulthood it necessarily leads to pressures within the criminal justice system. By the 1850’s the category of juvenile delinquent was recognised by law and in many instances juveniles and adult offenders were treated differently on the basis that juveniles (unlike adults) needed to be restored to childhood. This position carried within it a contradiction. On the one hand the young offender had acquired experience and therefore had lost a childlike state. Surely therefore such an offender needed to be subjected to the punitive impulse of the criminal justice system? On the other hand, the experience of the juvenile was unnatural (unlike the experience of the adult offender). Therefore the punitive impulse of the law should give way to a process of reformation and restoration. Nevertheless, despite the contradictions which were played out in debates of the period (debates which continue in slightly modified form today) the concept of the ‘juvenile delinquent had been established. But was it simply a legislative construct?

Legislation and juvenile delinquency

The period of the second quarter of the 19th century seems to have been one of considerable public concern about the extent of crime and particularly the behaviour of young people. Public perceptions were no doubt coloured by the increasing volumes of reports from voluntary agencies and parliamentary committees’ exploring the issue. Furthermore the period witnessed the growing use of statistical evidence to make quantitative assessments that suggested continually rising ‘crime rates’; evidence which some commentators consider to have fuelled a kind of ‘moral panic’ about the behaviour of the young (Rush pg. 141). Clearly, beneath the statistical evidence lay examples of real and troubling behaviour. It would be unsurprising, given the problems of poverty, urban squalor; unemployment and lack of educational provision if that were not the case. However, the law can transform the nature of behaviour by altering the boundaries between legal and illegal, punishable, activities. Furthermore, Legislation can create...

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