In the following paper written in 2006,  Adam Quirk discusses the late Thomas J. Bernard’s thesis on juvenile delinquency after reading Prof. Bernard’s The Cycle of Juvenile Justice (1992). Thomas J. Bernard, who sadly passed away in the summer of 2009, was a professor of sociology and criminal justice at Pennsylvania State University.

As Adam points out, concurring with Prof. Bernard, much of society, largely fueled by the media reports, believes juvenile delinquency to be at its worse in the current moment. However, as Bernard illustrates in The Cycle of Juvenile Justice, juvenile behavior and crime has remained constant throughout history.


I find it difficult to argue with Thomas Bernard’s thesis regarding the cycle of juvenile justice. In fact, I agree that the cyclic pendulum will continue to swing from one extreme to another. History, after all, demands it. Bernard (1992) correctly points out that at any given time people are convinced that juvenile crime is at an all time high, and that today’s youth are out of control and becoming worse. I recall when I was in fourth grade, reading the elementary magazine, Weekly Reader, in which there was an article describing the poor behaviors of school children and the recent acting-out phenomenon of children refusing to respect authority and committing violence against their peers and the community. In January 1998, I recall listening to President Bill Clinton’s State of the Union Address, where he spoke of juvenile crime statistics. In Newsweek in April 1999, shortly after the infamous shootings at Columbine High School, I recall reading about juvenile crime and the outrages of today’s youth. Shortly thereafter, I recall Vice President Al Gore speaking to the residents of the Columbine area and proclaiming, “We can rise up against the young killers of America, and we can say, ‘no more.’” Just as Bernard (1992) writes, we are constantly convinced that the adolescent crime wave just began and that it can be corrected with the proper policy shifts.

Within the reading, Bernard (1992) illustrates how juvenile behavior has remained a consistent problem throughout history: from early Biblical times with Cain and Abel, to the fifteenth century in Romeo and Juliet, to the 1950’s in West Side Story. Even so, we continue to believe that it’s worse today than ever, which initiates an assessment of the current system and then an ultimate shift in the policies. For a while we believe that harsh penalties caused juveniles to act-out, at which time we shift to more lenient policies and less punishment. Then, because we believe juvenile delinquency is worsening, we rationalize that lenient punishment did not work, causing a shift to harsher punishments. The pendulum swings, the policy shifts, and the juvenile justice system continues to struggle.

In contrast to the constant shift in policy changes, I was also intrigued with Bernard’s concern about juvenile justice policy staying the same. In his thesis, he explains that the certainty of punishment and the severity of punishment are enemies. Bernard (1992) states, “If you increase the severity of a penalty, you usually decrease the certainty with which it is applied. If you increase the certainty with which a penalty is applied, usually you must reduce its severity” (p. 27). This leads to the constant concern about the overall effectiveness and purpose of the juvenile justice system. Even the textbook points out, that because of today’s constant conflicting values of punishment in the juvenile justice system, no single ideology or program dominates the system (Siegel et al, 2003). Bernard (1992) explains that “if juvenile justice policies provide harsh punishments, then some juveniles will receive those punishments but others will receive no punishments at all because the punishments seem inappropriate and counterproductive. But if the policies provide lenient treatments, then many juveniles receive the treatments but some laugh and feel free to commit serious crime with impunity” (pgs. 27-28). The concern that both leniency and harshness cause juvenile crime, halts all system policy changes altogether, resulting in a “stuck” system.

After reading Bernard’s thesis, I believe that we will always view juvenile crime as at its worst point and as a result, the constant “back and forth” reform will continue. Just as we begin to believe that the proper policies have been implemented and the cycle has been broken, a “wave” of juvenile crime will result, and the pendulum will swing again. As long as our politicians and our periodicals insist on the outrageous behavior of youth, the cycle will continue and our juvenile justice system will face dilemma.


Siegel, L., Welsh, B., & Senna, J. (2003). Juvenile delinquency: theory, practice and law. 8th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Bernard, T. (1992). The cycle of juvenile justice. New York: Oxford University Press.