Criminal Justice Paper on Juvenile Delinquencies and Strain Theory

Juvenile Delinquency and Strain Theory


From petty crimes to murderous acts juvenile courts have been increasingly been dealing with juvenile delinquency at an increasing rate over the last decade. In 2010, approximately 1.4 million cases involving juvenile delinquencies were heard in courts, half a decade later the number was estimated at 1.5 million cases (National Institute of Justice OJP (Office of Justice Programs), 2012). Nonetheless, one of the most ill-famed cases of juvenile delinquency in the American criminology history is the Columbine shootings of 1999. The effects in legislation in form of gun control in learning institutes and consequences as suffered by the victims of the tragedy are to this day etched in history to this day. The compelling circumstances that led to two young individuals conducting one of the most horrific mass shooting acts in US history are highly deliberated. Nonetheless, there are a variety of theories that have been developed to give a comprehensive understanding of juvenile delinquency; consequently, in order to understand the perpetrators action there is need to use guidance as provided by the relevant models.

On 20 April 1999, two senior students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, arrived at Columbine High School armed with a bombs, handguns, assault rifles, and ammunition. During the early hours of the day, they strategically planted propane bombs in the cafeteria and set them to detonate at 11.17am, during the first stage of the rampage. At approximately 11.19am, after the failed detonation, they opted to execute their bloody act. For an hour, the two executed the worst school mass shooting incident in history killing one teacher, twelve students and injuring twenty for other individuals in the process. Afterwards, they turned their guns on themselves to avoid being arrested. After the dreadful incident, a number of sociology and criminology experts have endeavored to explain the Columbine shootings. One of the discussed was the influence on violent video games on young minds. Researches  such as that conducted by Lin, Cochran, and Mieczkowski (2011), indicate that a continuous exposure to violence, through video games particularly affect young minds. It was assumed that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold found it hard to distinguish between reality and fantasy due to video game violence. Another theory stated that the two young men were motivated by as well as wished to execute a bloodier catastrophe than that of the Oklahoma City Bombing (Tran, 2015).

As stated by Edwards (2001), juvenile criminality can be explained through appropriate delinquent theories. There are two sets of such philosophies, and these are called the Control and Strain theories. The Control theory attempts to explain why juveniles avoid delinquent behaviors, while the Strain theory explains the reasons that may push an individual to commit crimes. Both approaches focus their arguments on social and environmental pressures, either from the school or home (Lilly et al., 2014). From the explanations provided, the most appropriate theory to explain the two incidents mentioned above, is the Strain theory.

The investigation that took place after the incident led to the acquisition of Klebold’s journals. Information from the journals indicated that Dylan Klebold had been bullied constantly in school for a long time.  Klebold had been physically forced into lookers and often was subjected to homophobic slurs in both the school’s hallways as well as the cafeteria (Levin & Madfis, 2009). Klebold felt like an outsider because of the continued the hostile treatment he received from his peers. Gradually, he was exposed to depression, anger, as well as a quick temper. For a long time Klebold contemplated suicide as he believed it was his fault being different (Cullen, 2004). The only person who seemed to understand his predicament was being Eric Harris. The two were later labeled as the ‘losers of the losers’, faggots’ and ‘queers’ (Hasday, 2012).

The Strain theory explains that juvenile delinquency occurs in circumstances where young individuals are subjected to negative environmental stresses. As presented by Lilly et al. (2014), there are three primary types of strain that lead to delinquency namely the failure to achieve positively-valued goals, a loss of positive stimuli, and presentation of negative stimuli. One of the major causes of juvenile delinquency is the provocation by others. Young individuals lack tolerance; subsequently, they tend to be violent when they are offended beyond their psychological limits. As explained by Krohn et al. (2009), juveniles revert to when they are harassed by others, have financial problems, or seek revenge against those they feel have wronged them. The Strain theory states that juveniles have a constant need to be positively considered by their peers as well as other important figures in their lives. The minimum that they expect is to be treated justly. Furthermore, juveniles are known to have a great desire for status as well as respect. The demand for respect is especially important among male juveniles, as it appeals to their masculinity.

From the information collected from the investigation, it is evident that Dylan Klebold’s situation fits with the principles of General Strain Theory. Firstly, Dylan’s failure in making friends caused an alienation by almost everyone in the school. This led to his the attraction to a fellow outsider. The relationship between Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold was toxic as it encouraged violent antisocial behavior that Klebold found acceptable (Levin & Madfis, 2009). Harris was never like Klebold as he never faced similar challenges. Harris was simply a psychopath because no point indicated signs of an internal struggle as suffered by Klebold. He was known to hurt others not because he was retaliating, but because he wanted to hurt them (Cullen, 2004). His peers often alienated him because he was known to be overly aggressive and physically violent. Consequently, this placed a stigma that sent him on a revenge path to those he saw were hurting him emotionally. According to investigation reports, both Harris and Klebold aimed to kill particular members of the school social group such as popular sports figures as they questioned the injured (Hasday, 2012). Had Klebold not gone through the strains he was subjected to by his peers, he most likely may not have been part of the shootings.

While the theory does a commendable job in explaining juvenile criminal behavior, there are a variety of weaknesses in its development. Firstly, the theory takes an individualistic approach in its presentation ignoring group crimes. Harris is highlighted as the true mastermind; therefore, failing to clearly show how the two individuals actions might have been a group incident. There is need to understand the group dynamics of juvenile delinquency as more young individuals are recruited to join criminal gangs in the United States. In retrospect the theory may not be comprehensively used in other incidences that involve more than a single mastermind.  Secondly, Marsico (2010) argues that the theory stipulates its premise on face value. It is set on the basis of quantity and not quality. This means that it highlights the cause of delinquency, but not the level to which an action may cause misconduct. For example, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold acted out of bullying. However, according to Harris’ journal, the plot of the shooting was planned for over a year, therefore, ruling out the last incident with the football players as being the reason for their attack.

In summary, the notion of juvenile delinquency has been studied and presented by different scholars in varied ways throughout its history. The two theories that are used to explain juvenile delinquencies are the Control and Strain theories. In the examples presented, the most appropriate theory to explain the behaviors exhibited by the perpetrators is the Strain theory. The model states that individuals resort to criminal behaviors when social and environmental issues, such as bullying and sexual molestation, overwhelm them, leading to criminality. However, the model lacks in a way, as it centers its attention in the individualistic behavior of how a person may revert to criminality due to pressure, and not as part of a group. Additionally, the model takes up statistics on face value, thereby highlighting the cause of the problem in an un-comprehensive manner. Nevertheless, despite the highlighted weakness, sociologists as well as criminology experts can analyze the 1999 incident; conclusively, using the Strain theory.





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Edwards, C. N. (2001). Responsibilities and dispensations: Behavior, science, & American justice. Carl N Edwards.

Hasday, J. L. (2012). Forty-nine minutes of madness: The Columbine High School shooting. Enslow Publishers, Inc.

Krohn, M. D., Lizotte, A. J., & Hall, G. P. (Eds.). (2009). Handbook on crime and deviance. Dordrecht: Springer.

Levin, J., & Madfis, E. (2009). Mass murder at school and cumulative strain: A sequential model. American Behavioral Scientist, 52(9), 1227-1245. doi:10.1177/0002764209332543

Lilly, J. R, Cullen, F. T, & Ball, R. A. (2014). Criminology theory: Context and consequences. Thousand Oaks; Sage Publications, Inc.

Lin, W., Cochran, J. K., & Mieczkowski, T. (2011). Direct and vicarious violent victimization and juvenile delinquency: An application of general strain theory. Sociological Inquiry, 81(2),195-222. doi:10.1111/j.1475-682X.2011.00368.x

Marsico, K. (2010). The Columbine High School massacre: Murder in the classroom. Marshall Cavendish.

National Institute of Justice Office of Justice Programs. (2015). Juveniles. Retrieved from

Tran, A. (2015). Columbine high school massacre. Salem Press Encyclopedia