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The Relationship Between Delinquency and Drug Use

By Roby Lynn Rice
In my attempt to discover if delinquency and drug use, or the sale of drugs were correlated with one another, my research lead to a positive correlation, especially when there was gang membership involved. The theory I have chosen to tie in with my review of the articles I found is the social learning theory of Edwin Sutherland known as differential association theory. According to Britannica online, Sutherland’s differential association theory of delinquent behavior is learned from other persons who are also engaged in delinquent behaviors. Sutherland believes that a person becomes delinquent because of an access amount of exposure to the definitions of criminal behavior and the violation of the law (Britannica 2007). This particular belief is a good theory to use to explain juvenile delinquency. Orcutt (1983) explains that Sutherland states that everyone has social groups which influence each of us in the actions that we chose to engage in according to the norms and values of that group. An example would be that most of our parents teach us that we should respect and obey the law. However, there are those that some people are associated with inside their social network that influence in negative ways, tempting and leading others into deviant behavior. Such as assuring those within a group that certain drugs should not be criminalized and that the chance of getting caught with them is very slim. With enough pressure and continued exposure to that mindset and behavior pattern, an individual whom has not been engaged in certain illegal behaviors becomes involved with those activities that promote the illegal and delinquent behaviors. The behavior referred to in this paper is the use or selling of drugs and its connection with juvenile delinquency and gangs. According to Orcutt (1983), Sutherland does point out that learning of social norms and values does not come from the mass population but for one’s own intimate connections with family and close peers. Orcutt (1983) also tells us that Sutherland states that the learning process of delinquent behavior is the exact same process as it is for the learning of accepted norms and values. When a child learns through his close peers or family members the definitions and techniques for delinquent behavior, that child is more likely than not to act on his/her acquired knowledge when he/she sees the benefits of delinquent behavior as outweighing the disadvantages.

An example of this would be delinquency through gang involvement. A study was conducted in Arizona that used data from the Arizona Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring (ADAM) program that supported the hypothesis that current gang members were significantly more likely to use drugs (marijuana and cocaine) as compared with former gang members (Katz, Charles M., Vincent J. Webb and Scott H. Decker 2005). The ADAM program is designed to collect data from recently booked arrestees. This data was collected from two counties in Arizona, Maricopa and Pima Counties. It is important to note that only those juveniles that were detained by the police and held were the subjects of this study and not the juveniles that had been released to parents or other responsible parties (Katz et al.2005). According to Katz et al. (2005), the variable used for this study focused on gender, age, and ethnicity along with prior arrests, drug history of respondent and what the current school status of the respondent was at the time of the study. The questionnaire included questions on the frequency of drug use that covered a 12 month, 30 day and 3 day period for 13 different types of drugs. The respondents were then asked to provide a urine sample that was calibrated to detect drugs ingested within a 72 hour period (Vishner 1991). After the urinalysis was obtained, the respondents were given another questionnaire about affiliation or participation within gangs. The questions asked pertained to level of gang activity in respondent’s neighborhood, organization and structure of gangs in neighborhood, what the characteristics and composition of the gangs are, gang membership and victimization. In order to determine if the respondent was an actual gang member as opposed to respondents that were members of informal gangs, the respondents was asked to reveal the name of the gang they were a member of. If the respondent did not answer with the name of the gang, that respondent was not considered an actual gang member and therefore not counted (Katz et. al.). The sample consisted of 939 juvenile arrestees, 81% male and 19% female. Within the sample, 25.7% were 14 years of age or younger, 20.3% were 15 years old and 54% were 16 years old or older (Katz et. al.). Gang affiliation / participation were rather high at 52% of all respondents.

The findings show that out of a total number of 451 from the sample size of 939, only 11.1% of the respondents that reported drug use or sale of drugs were not affiliated with any type of gang. Whereas 488, 52% of the sample size of 939 were members of, or affiliated with gangs. Of that 488, more than three-quarters reported using or selling drugs (Katz et. al. 2005)

In a study conducted to measure the effects of the background and characteristics offenders, we can see how this study supports Sutherland’s theory. This study shows that background characteristics not only help to explain patterns of offending but also serve as a basis as important predictors of types of offending (Armstrong and Britt 2004). This study looks at many different socialization influences in the life of the offender. I am mainly concerned for the purpose of this paper with the correlation of family or peer influence in the participation of delinquency with the use of drugs. Armstrong and Britt (2004) reports that young people from families that are engaged in delinquent and criminal behavior are more at risk of learning and committing crimes at a younger age than juveniles from families that do not participate in delinquent behavior. This supports Sutherland’s differential theory in that a juvenile will do as others in his/her close social group does. Armstrong and Britt (2004) also point out that if a juvenile has just one friend that is involved in delinquent behavior he/she will be at greater risk of committing a delinquent act. According to Armstrong and Britt (2004) juveniles that are associated with a gang are at greater risk of several delinquent behaviors including but not limited to the use or selling of drugs as compared to non-gang members. One hypothesis within this study suggests that when crime is committed in a group (gang) a greater likelihood of specialization / escalation may occur (Armstrong and Britt 2004).

The method used for the collection of data for this study was based on aggregate data using the Forward Specialization Coefficient ( FSC) or individual data comparing across demographic characteristics such as age or gender by using a heterogeneity index (Armstrong and Britt 2004). Juveniles held under the supervision of the California Youth Authority (CYA) in the 1980’s participated in this study. According to Armstrong and Britt (2004) two random samples were used. 2,000 wards released in 1981-82 and 2,000 wards released in 1986-87 from the CYA. The sources used for the gathering of the data were from four areas; Youth Authority electronically stored ward data files, the hardcopy ward master Files of the Youth Authority, the Criminal History files of the California Department of Justice and the California Vital Statistics (Armstrong and Britt 2004). It was found that out of the sample (N=2,294) 43.3% of respondents siblings were involved in criminal activity, 27.3% of respondents caregivers were involved in criminality, 33.3% of respondents parents had an alcohol/drug problem, 41.9 % of respondents were involved with gangs, 80.4 % of respondents had a chemical or drug problem and 64.7% of respondents had a problem with alcohol according to table 1, Characteristics of the Sample (Armstrong and Britt 2004). This study found that gang association increased the odds that the respondent would be involved in violence, drug and alcohol offenses with the odds ratio of drug offense being increased by approximately 1.38. These finding support the hypothesis that juveniles who are gang members are more likely to be involved in drug related offenses than non-gang members. It also supports Sutherland’s theory of differential association. This study also found that characteristics of individuals that predict any criminal behavior also predict type of criminal behavior.

The office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) publishes a bulletin called the Juvenile Justice Bulletin. Within that bulletin I was able to locate data that is relevant to delinquency. With concerns mounting about youth gangs, the OJJDP’s Youth Gang Series address many key issues concerning youth gangs which included but was not limited to youth gang drug trafficking (Howell and Gleason 1999). This study is relevant to juvenile delinquency because it is widely believed that gangs are involved in drug sales which lead to the commission of other crimes. Howell and Gleason (1999) used the responses obtained by the National Youth Gang Center (NYGC) in the 1996 National Youth Gang Survey. According to Howell and Gleason (1999) the sample size of 3,024 police and sheriff’s departments received the survey. 87% of the sample size responded with a total of 53% of the respondents reporting a problem with gangs. Respondents reported that 43% of drug sales were conducted by gang members in their jurisdiction, 57% reported that they had active gangs, and in jurisdictions that included drug gangs 41% of respondents said that more than half (or all) of drug distribution was managed and controlled by gangs (Howell and Gleason 1999). Howell and Gleason (1999) found that the largest age group of gang members was 15-17 years old. It was also found that in areas that respondents reported that gangs did not control drug distribution, 79% of gang members were juveniles, 17 years old or younger. And in areas that reported drug distribution being controlled by gangs, 42% of gang members were 17 or younger and 58% of gang members were 18 and older. Though this study found that when gang members were involved in the sale of drugs, they were also usually involved in the distribution as well and is widespread, according to Howell and Gleason (1999), however, it is central to a very small number of jurisdictions.

In conclusion, it is very apparent that the people we are socialized by as children have a huge impact on the behaviors we adopt as individuals according to our learned norms and values. I have also found that while gang drug activity is relegated to a small number of jurisdictions, it does support the hypothesis that juveniles that are associated with gangs are more likely than non-gang members to be involved with the use, selling and distribution of drugs. I have also learned that while a juvenile’s drug activity was apparent as a gang member, which was not usually the case either before joining the gang or after departing from the gang. This again supports Sutherland’s differential association theory that we tend to adopt the norms and values of those we are being socialized with.

Armstrong, Todd A. and Chester L. Britt. 2004. “The Effect of Offender Characteristics
On Offense Specialization And Escalation.” Justice Quarterly 21 (4): 843-876
Howell, James C. and Debra K. Gleason. 1999. “Youth Gang Drug Trafficking.” Juvenile
Justice Bulletin. Retrieved November 15, 2007 (
Katz, Charles M., Vincent J. Webb and Scott H. Decker. 2005 “Using The Arrestee Drug
Abuse Monitoring (ADAM) Program To Further Understand The Relationship
Between Drug Use And Gang Membership.” Justice Quarterly 22 (1): 58-88
Orcutt, James D. 1983. “Analyzing Deviance”. Pp 153-163. Retrieved November
18, 2007 (
Sutherland, Edwin. 2007. In Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved November 15, 2007,
from Encyclopedia Britannica Online:
Vishner,C. 1991. “A Comparison of Urinalysis Technologies For Drug Testing In
Criminal Justice.” Washington DC : National Institute Of Justice, cited in Charles
M. Katz, Vincent J. Webb and Scott H. Decker. 2005. “Using The Arrestee Drug
Abuse Monitoring (ADAM) Program To Further Understand The Relationship
Between Drug Use and Gang Membership.” Justice Quarterly 22 (1) 58-88