LDS youth less likely to commit crime, study says

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    By CATHERINE LANGFORD

    A study by two BYU professors suggests that although juvenile crime is a problem in Utah — as well as other parts of the country — the majority of LDS youth have a higher rate of resistance to the peer pressures that often result in delinquency.

    Brent L. Top, assistant dean of religious education, said the survey was an effort to discover the effects of religion on youths to resist delinquent behavior. He and Bruce A. Chadwick, a professor of sociology, discovered that despite the results of past surveys based on the relationship between religion and delinquent behavior, religious values do have a positive effect on youth.

    “It doesn’t matter where you live,” Top said. “It’s the religious values.”

    The study, a mail questionnaire conducted in the spring of 1995 in the Northwest and in the fall of 1995 in Utah Valley, surveyed values and behaviors of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in grades nine through 12.

    The sample was gathered from lists prepared from church records for possible enrollment in the seminary program for high school students. The response rate was 63 percent.

    Another study surveyed 1,500 LDS youth living on the East Coast, also in 1995.

    Chadwick and Top will discuss the results of their study and offer suggestions for parents in a free seminar Feb. 7 from 1-5 p.m. in the Joseph Smith Building Auditorium.

    The results show that, although youths are not free of delinquency, they tend to stay away from such behavior, depending on the strenght of their religious beliefs.

    Perhaps the most impressive result of the studies was the consistency between geographical groups. When the BYU study results were compared with the national averages, the results also favored the positive influence of religious values.

    A study reported in 1993 by the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan, indicated that while the use of alcohol, tobacco and drugs was high on a national level, Top and Chadwick discovered that among LDS youth surveyed in the East Coast, the Pacific Northwest and Utah County, the averages were considerably lower.

    For example, 64 percent of male youths nationwide had smoked cigarettes in their lifetimes, while LDS male youths from the East Coast, the Pacific Northwest and Utah County had averages of 22, 25 and 28 percent respectively.

    Another area where LDS youths differed from the national average was alcohol use. When asked whether they had ever been drunk “or very high on alcohol,” 63 percent of males had, as had 59 percent of females nationwide. However, the highest percentage for LDS youth was 19 percent of males in Utah County and 14 percent of females on the East Coast.

    Chadwick said what impressed him most about the survey results were the similarities among LDS youths across the country.

    The similarities discovered through the survey refute other sociological surveys that indicate religion makes a difference only among an area that is dominantly religious, Chadwick said. Such surveys are based on church attendance as a test of what Chadwick and Top call “religiosity” and favor the theory that LDS youths in Utah, for example, would be less likely to act outside religious standards because they are surrounded by peers, teachers and leaders with similar religious backgrounds and beliefs.

    Nationwide, the population of juveniles arrested in 1995 was 1,617,872, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports for 1996.

    Of those arrested in 1995, the Utah Juvenile Court handled 115,461. The total crimes committed by LDS youth that were handled by the juvenile court — with no distinction made between guilty or innocent — was 7,518 youths, or 6.5 percent of those handled.

    The majority of cases — 85.6 percent — did not report religious affiliation. According to Michael Phillips in data collections at the Administrative Office of the Courts for the state Judicial Council, the courts are more likely to have the juvenile offender’s religious affiliation on record if the juvenile is frequently involved in delinquent activities.

    Juvenile delinquents who reported religious affiliation other than the LDS Church comprised 4.9 percent of the total, and juveniles claiming no religious affiliation were 1.8 percent.

    Totals are likely to be skewed toward the dominantly LDS population and a high population of juveniles compared to the rest of the country, as reported in “Utah in the 1990s: A Demographic Perspective.”

    Russell K. Van Vleet, an assistant professor at University of Utah’s Graduate School of Social Work, said the juvenile crime totals are often exaggerated since juveniles usually act in groups and they are tried for an episode, not a crime. So, for example, if eight juveniles steal beer, they are separately tried for a total of eight offenses, rather than one, he said.

    As reflected in the juvenile crime rates from 1995 to 1996, though, Van Vleet said the crime rates are going down, consistent with the national average for all crimes, which have decreased by 6.7 percent since 1992, according to the FBI crime index.

    As far as prevention and playing an active role in decreasing the number of annual juvenile offenses, Top and Chadwick discovered several significant correlations during their studies. When looking at LDS delinquency in particular, Chadwick said one must examine peer influences, religious conviction and family influences.

    The higher the proportion of LDS friends among those surveyed, Chadwick said, the lower the delinquency rates were, except in Utah County where the majority of the population is LDS, he said.

    One element that seemed to counteract the peer influence, though, was religious conviction or religiosity. Chadwick defined religiosity as “the sum and substance of your sense of religion.”

    Among the three geographic groups surveyed, while no more than 40 percent were ever involved in a crime of violence or theft, roughly 96 percent expressed a belief in God, and about 97 percent said they believed Jesus Christ to be the son of God.

    Roughly 77 percent of those surveyed said they had a testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and about 50 percent said they pray.

    Church attendance, though, was where the most discrepancies appeared. On the East Coast, of the 1,393 surveyed, 86 percent said they attended sacrament meeting “very often,” and on the West Coast, 81 percent of the 632 surveyed attended sacrament meeting very often. A similar percentage attended other church meetings, such as Young Women, priesthood and Sunday school.

    However, in Utah Valley, while 79 percent attended sacrament meeting very often, the percentage dropped to 74 percent for Young Women and Priesthood, and 69 percent for Sunday school.

    Chadwick said public religious behavior was insignificant in judging overall behavior compared to private convictions. As he said, when looking at the private behavior of the individual, that’s when religiosity is really distinguishable.

    Top said one possible reason for the lower public religious behavior among Utah Valley youth was the proximity and frequency of church buildings in a neighborhood, and that many LDS members walk to church, trusting their children to independently attend their classes and meetings.

    Finally, the family plays a role in teaching religiosity, Chadwick said, but the most influential way for parents to teach children to resist temptation is to teach them what he called “psychological autonomy,” or independent thinking.

    “It’s achieved by getting your … youngsters to talk,” he said. It also includes not overreacting to comments and ideas expressed by children.

    “Don’t freak out,” Chadwick said. Rather, parents should listen and talk it out, encouraging children to think for themselves and come up with their own answers.

    If parents don’t listen and respect children’s perspectives, Chadwick said, children lose confidence. “Parents just need to be patient (with children),” he said.

    Top said some of the ways parents can help encourage children to think for themselves and develop their own sense of religiosity include being a good example, providing opportunities for spiritual experiences, discussing religious principles and sharing spiritual feelings on a regular basis, encouraging children to pray and read scriptures privately, as well as encouraging them to gain their own testimonies.

    While these suggestions are not a guarantee that children will be able to resist peer influences to become involved in delinquent behavior, Chadwick said family and religious influences are some of the strongest deterrents for delinquent behavior.

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