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The Jack-Roller: A Delinquent Boy's Own Story by Shaw

The Jack-Roller: A Delinquent Boy’s Own Story by Shaw


The frequency of criminal activities in the world has been influenced by aspects that are covered by different criminological theories. Such factors as peer pressure and psychological backgrounds influence the manner in which criminals are involved in different criminal activities. The Jack-Roller: A Delinquent Boy’s Own Story by Shaw (1966) is a book that describes the story of Stanley, a delinquent going through different phases of criminology, and his influences and experiences. This paper will examine important aspects of Akers’ differential reinforcement theory as part of social learning, theory, using evidence of Stanley’s values, attitudes and influences as presented in The Jack- Roller (Shaw, 1966). The integration of concepts and the evidence from the book will provide a foundation for understanding the elements of the theory in detail.

The Jack Roller

The roots of juvenile delinquency continue to be a subject of many criminological research studies. The Jack Roller explains a story of Stanley, a juvenile delinquent, whom Clifford Shaw comes across during his interviews with juveniles. The book takes readers through various events that happened in Stanley’s life from childhood to adulthood. The story introduces personal details that affect Stanley and the reasons why he has become involved in criminal activities. The influences of his environment, family background, and cognitive behavioral characteristics are also described in the book.

Criminological Theory Discussion

The social learning theory states that learning is an element that depends on individual’s cognitive and behavioral processes. They enable a person to learn from others through modeling, observing and imitating. Ronald Akers believed that individuals in society developed motivation to commit crimes because of their associations (Cullen & Agnew, 2003). In this regard, persons learn about their criminal skills through personal interactions with their peers or other people. Therefore, a deviant type of behavior is learned through observing and modeling social factors from the social context perspective.

Akers’ social learning theory is dependent on several principles, one of which advocates for vicarious reinforcement (Cullen & Agnew, 2003). It implies that individuals learn through observing other people’s behavior and are affected by its consequences. Additionally, the theory is based on the principle of modeling, whereby individuals develop new behavioral tendencies from observing behavioral patterns of other people in society. Reciprocal determinism is also important as it implies that an individual is an active recipient of valuable information. In this regard, people depend on their behavioral, cognitive and environmental stimuli that influence their actions in the long-run. According to Cullen and Agnew (2003: 159), differential reinforcement enables people to sharpen their criminal skills.

Application of Akers’ Social Learning Theory to The Jack-Roller

Akers states that criminal behavior is learned through conditioning, modeling, and imitation (Cullen & Agnew, 2003). In The Jack Roller, Stanley describes his home environment as a reason for his deviant behavior. He explains, “My life was filled with sorrow and misery. The cause was my stepmother, who nagged me, beat me, and drove me out of my own home” (Shaw, 1966: 47). He continues to explain that the influence from his stepbrother and friends introduced him to the world of crime. These people urged him to stealing. In addition, his stepmother also encouraged such activities. Therefore, observing his stepbrother and friends made Stanley model criminal behavioral patterns.

Environment stimuli also enhance criminal activities (Cullen & Agnew, 2003). Growing up in an unstable environment whereby violence was a norm made him believe that violence was the best way of communicating. Therefore, he imitated his stepmother’s actions towards him. He also learned the act of stealing by imitating his older stepbrother and friends. He was conditioned to this behavior because of the attention he accorded them and his cognitive abilities that enhanced his survival.

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An important element in Akers’ social learning theory is the rate of relapse or addiction to criminal behavior that individuals acquire (Cullen & Agnew, 2003). Once they learn about different criminal activities, they perfect the art and become addicted to committing crimes. Stanley shows this addiction in The Jack Roller. He becomes so addicted to the art of crime that makes friends with the former delinquents and criminals. His friendship with a former inmate from Saint Charles makes him perfect the activities associated with jack-rolling. Stanley justifies his actions after he had assaulted and robbed a gay man on the streets. He said, “He tried to ensnare me, and I figured I was right to relieving him of his thirteen bucks” (Shaw, 1966: 86).

Akers also explains that the type and frequency of learning depend on the norms based on which these reinforcement elements are applied (Cullen & Agnew, 2003). Even after his release from the detention center, Stanley found it difficult to live a life without crimes. His life outside the institution did not mirror the lessons learned at the detention home. Stanley did not see the need for going back home after he had been released. Therefore, he was taken in by a prostitute. His attempts to get factory jobs were futile for the reason that he had become addicted to the life of taking things without having to work too hard to buy them. For Stanley, the temptation of getting a quick dollar was hard to resist (Shaw, 1966: 78).

Failing to have a stable home had a significant influence on Stanley’s life. The lack of a stable home environment reinforced criminal activities he was used to, making them become a norm in his life (Cullen & Agnew, 2003: 201). The Jack Roller explains how Stanley found it easy spending nights in alleys and vacant houses. In addition, he failed to live in foster homes assigned to him. All chances he had of getting a good home were ruined by his self-destruction activities like being violent or stealing.

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Stanley’s jack-rolling activities were influenced by his psychological and cognitive issues accumulated since he was young (Shaw, 1966: 115). He said that he lacked the influence of his father in his life. “My father was gone all the time and when he was there he was drinking heavily” (Shaw, 1966: 61). The lack of a positive influence from his father made him being affected by other people in society. His behavioral tendencies made him incline to learning how to commit crimes and perfect his jack-rolling activities. His life on West Madison Street was an outlet for his emotions, especially those that he had experienced because of his father’s negative influences on him. He became very violent, targeting innocent victims, incapacitating them and stealing in the long run (Shaw, 1966:116). At the age of fifteen, he enjoyed the influence of other delinquents in alleys because he longed for a father influence on him. The streets reinforced his frequency of acquiring criminal behavior, being an important element in social learning theory (Cullen & Agnew, 2003).

Akers’ social learning theory has an effect on individuals who seem to have low self-esteem (Cullen & Agnew, 2003). Stanley believed that people looked down on him. Therefore, he had to build a psychological defense to protect him. Stanley’s involvement in criminal activities makes him believe that he is trapped in this type of life and has become a victim of different circumstances. “For the first time in my life, I realized that I was a criminal. I became one as I sat there and brooded. At first I was almost afraid of myself, being like a stranger to my own self” (Shaw, 1966: 103). Once he has become accustomed to the life of crime, he finds himself valuable to other criminals. Criminal activities have become his source of self-esteem.

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Using the logic of Akers’ differential reinforcement theory, I believe that Stanley continues living a life of crime. Stanley’s deviation to criminal activities is attributed to the strength of the differential reinforcement that has already occurred in his life. In this regard, the strength of these elements makes me believe in the probability that he will resort to criminal behavior. His association with the people on West Madison Street is also a reason to lure him back into jack-rolling activities. The pleasure and self-confidence that Stanley derives from jack-rolling will also make him resorting to committing crimes.

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Akers’ differential reinforcement theory explains the elements that facilitate criminal behavior. The Jack-Roller gives an inner perspective into the life of Stanley and different issues that he faced, making him a criminal. The book is also effective in providing a background of Stanley’s life that explains some of his behavioral tendencies. However, it fails to explain what the future holds for Stanley, making readers form their conclusions. Akers’ differential reinforcement theory highlights the importance of reinforcements and their impact on criminal behavior. However, it fails to describe the impact of psychological, physical and biological elements of learning criminal behavior in society. However, the most important aspect to take from the book is that crime is an induced activity. It can be easily controlled through effective mentorship programs, especially for teenagers like Stanley, to prevent the development of criminal activities in the future.