An odd sort of paradox has highlighted recently the problem of adolescent crime.

On the one hand, with reports of children as young as 10 committing parricide and school shootings, it would appear crime among youth has escalated. On the other hand, crime statistics during the past decade have shown juvenile crime and school violence is on the decline.

What criminologists have come to understand is that while crime rates among juveniles have fallen, the acts committed by these juveniles have become ever more violent. It is also becoming apparent that with the rise in the juvenile population and with the most recent crime statistics available, juvenile crime is once again rising.

One other subtle fact is the growing awareness that “ordinary” teen-agers are committing many of these violent acts, leaving one author to term the problem the “apocalypse of adolescence.” While the problem might not truly be of such biblical proportions, one does wonder what can be done to avert crime during the adolescent years.

The secular reaction to these crimes is to blame the juvenile's problems on a dysfunctional family, peers, low self-esteem and to give a cursory nod to the popular culture. The solutions are often to call for instructing parents to learn the “signs” of juvenile crime, for enhancing security at schools (a “bricks-and-mortar” mentality, only in this case it is “security guards and metal detectors”), for various forms of counseling programs aimed at kids in the school system and sometimes for enhancing the presence of the criminal-justice system within the schools.

Average Families

The problem with that approach, as many have become aware, is that many of these youth do not come from dys-functional families but rather from very average families. Peers are in fact a good source of blame for many crimes, but they are also sometimes to be lauded for keeping their friends from committing crimes. Self-esteem has recently been dismissed in the psychology field, as high self-esteem is associated with narcissistic behavior and, contrary to popular belief, bullies do not suffer from low self-esteem.

And, of course, the cursory nod to popular culture could be missing what is perhaps the greatest influence on youth, but research in this area is tenuous at best. Conventional wisdom that television violence contributes to youth violence generally doesn't demonstrate a direct causal link in clinical studies.

As for the secular responses to juvenile crime, they tend to discount those factors that have a great influence on youth such as family, peers and popular culture, and favor counseling programs aimed at teaching generically to students about the problems of crime. They also tend to be – like the criminal-justice response – reactive in nature. Finally, when the criminal-justice response to youth crime is proactive it tends to be invasive (e.g., drug dogs and locker searches) and doesn't effectively deal with the crime problem. What is needed is a proactive measure that deals with some of the underlying problems of adolescent crime and, as many in my field say, “gets to the root of the problem.”

The one response secular society almost never mentions – for obvious reasons – is religion. It would seem those who grow up with a strong faith in any of the Judeo-Christian religions would be taught that crime is a sin and would be less likely to commit crimes. Dr. Ray Guarendi, a psychologist-author (and also a Register Family Matters columnist) has pointed this link out in his book You're a Better Parent Than You Think!and has discussed the importance of what he refers to as “spirituality” in his book Back to the Family.

For the Church, the key to the prevention of youth crime should be very evident: strong Catholic families.

Essentially, the stronger the faith of the family, the less likely the child is to commit any type of violation of the family norms, including crime.

Recently, only a few studies in the criminal-justice field have explored the relationship between a juvenile's faith and his propensity to commit crime. A study in the late 1980s found that juveniles who associated with peers who were strong and like-minded in their religious faith were less likely to smoke marijuana. Religion was found to guide the juveniles, but their peers were the direct influence.

A more recent study in 2000 found that inner-city and disadvantaged youth who attended church services on a regular basis were less likely to commit crimes, deal drugs or use drugs.

While encouraging, these studies have several drawbacks: They were one-time surveys on specific groups of juveniles and they focused on religion in a generic sense; hence there was no distinction among religions. A new study, however, is beginning to address these problems.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is conducting a national study of youth and religion. It is a four-year study that surveys high-school seniors regarding their personal activities and religious behaviors in an attempt to understand the impact religion has on crime and other juvenile delinquent acts. The study began in fall 2001 and will be completed in 2005. The researchers, Christian Smith and Robert Faris, recently released their first set of findings and they are telling.

Perhaps the most significant finding was the fact that those juveniles who attended church on a weekly basis were far less likely to commit petty and significant thefts, trespass, shoplift, hit a teacher, smoke marijuana, try hard drugs, sell drugs, get drunk or get in trouble with the police than those who never attended church.

In addition, they were less likely to try cigarettes, smoke on a regular basis, go to bars, take unnecessary risks, skip school, be sent to detention, be suspended or be expelled. They also were more likely to wear seatbelts in their cars, volunteer in the community and participate in sports and student government. It should also be noted that the strength of attending church on a weekly basis proved to be much more effective than if the youth only attended once or twice a month.

The study also found that those youth who perceived religion to be very important in their lives were significantly less likely to commit these same negative behaviors than those who did not see religion as important in their lives. However, added to the list of negative behaviors that were far less likely to be committed by those that were strong in their faith were armed robberies, automobile theft, vandalism and arson. They also were significantly less likely to get a traffic ticket, get in a fight or argue with their parents.

Also interesting to note from the study was the impact belonging to a religious youth group had on juvenile crime and juvenile delinquency. For those youth who had belonged to a youth group for six or more years – thus starting no later than the seventh grade – they were far less likely to try a cigarette, smoke regularly, go to bars, get drunk, try marijuana, smoke marijuana on a regular basis or try hard drugs. Religious peers seem to have a great influence on youth in terms of drugs and alcohol.

Consequences of Faith

Finally, looking solely at the Catholic faith itself, those youth who identified themselves as Catholics were less likely than those with no religious identity to smoke regularly, be offered drugs, sell drugs, try marijuana, try hard drugs, hit a teacher, skip school and be suspended or expelled from school. In addition, they were more likely to be those students who volunteer in the community, participate in sports or student government and whose parents limit their time out on school nights.

The real key, however, appears to be at the intersection of these four categories. When a youth identifies himself as Catholic and believes strongly in his faith, coupled with his holy obligation to attend Mass every Sunday and when involved in a church group, the chances of him committing juvenile crimes or exhibiting delinquent behavior fall dramatically. The key to the prevention of youth crime for Catholic families should be very evident: family and a strong Catholic faith.

As Guarendi has pointed out, it is the family that sets the example in terms of their Catholic faith, and children learn from this example. As a result, those youth who grow up in a Catholic family, attend Mass on a weekly basis and grow to love their faith will most likely steer away from crime and delinquency. In addition, ensuring adolescents have opportunities to associate with like-minded peers through such things as Catholic youth groups and teen Masses are critical to steering this course away from sin.

When the “ounce of prevention” to crime is a strong adherence to our Catholic faith, we are truly blessed by the grace of God.

Willard M. Oliver is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Radford, Virginia.