Program of Research on the Causes and Correlates of Delinquency

In an effort to learn more about the root causes of juvenile delinquency and other problem behaviors, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) is sponsoring the Program of Research on the Causes and Correlates of Delinquency. Serious delinquency and drug use are major problems in American society. Past research indicates that many variables correlate with delinquency and that many factors tend to increase the risk of later delinquent behavior. Among these risk factors are birth trauma, child abuse and neglect, ineffective parental discipline, family disruptions, conduct disorder and hyperactivity in children, school failure, learning disabilities, negative peer influences, limited employment opportunities, inadequate housing, and residence in high-crime neighborhoods.

Overall, research findings support the conclusion that no single cause accounts for all delinquency and that no single pathway leads to a life of crime. To date, however, research has not clearly identified all the causal pathways that lead to delinquency or the factors that cause different individuals to take different paths. There is general agreement among social scientists and policymakers that longitudinal studies are the best way to gain information on the causes of delinquency. This type of investigation involves repeated contacts with the same individuals so that patterns of development can be studied. The strength of the longitudinal design is that it permits researchers to sort out which factors precede changes in offending, to predict such changes, and to do so independent of other factors. With the aid of repeated measures, it is possible to identify pathways to delinquency, each with unique causal factors that, like delinquency itself, may change with time. Successfully accomplishing this will provide the information needed to develop truly effective intervention programs.

OJJDP has been in the forefront of supporting basic, long-term research that provides the hard empirical information needed to design effective action programs. The Program of Research on the Causes and Correlates of Delinquency is an example of OJJDP's support for long-term research. The Causes and Correlates program, initiated in 1986, includes three coordinated longitudinal projects: the Denver Youth Survey, directed by Dr. David Huizinga at the University of Colorado; the Pittsburgh Youth Study, directed by Dr. Rolf Loeber at the University of Pittsburgh; and the Rochester Youth Development Study, directed by Dr. Terence P. Thornberry at the University at Albany, State University of New York. This program represents a milestone in criminological research because it constitutes the largest shared-measurement approach ever achieved in delinquency research. From the beginning, the three research teams worked together to ensure that they used similar measurement techniques, thus enhancing generalizability by allowing for analyses that include all three sites.

The Causes and Correlates studies are designed to improve the understanding of serious delinquency, violence, and drug use through the examination of how individual youth develop within the context of family, school, peers, and the community. While each of the three projects has unique features, they share several key elements. All of the projects are longitudinal investigations that involve repeated contacts with the same juveniles over a substantial portion of their developmental years.

The research teams on the three projects collaborated in creating the most comprehensive, common measurement package ever used in delinquency research. Thus, each of the three sites uses core measures to collect data on a wide range of key variables, including delinquent behavior, drug use, juvenile justice system involvement, community characteristics, family experiences, peer relationships, educational experiences, attitudes and values, and demographic characteristics. This allows for comparison across sites on common measures and the opportunity to reach more valid conclusions regarding cross-site similarities and differences on such factors as the age of onset of violent crime.

In each project, researchers conduct face-to-face interviews with individual juveniles in a private setting to collect self-report information on the nature and frequency of serious violent behavior. The advantage of using self-report data, rather than juvenile justice records of arrests, is that researchers come much closer to measuring actual violent behaviors and ascertaining when a violent career began. Multiple perspectives on each child's development and behavior were obtained through interviews with the child's primary caretaker and, whenever possible, teachers. In addition to interview data, the studies have collected extensive data from official records such as school, police, and juvenile court. This provides comparison data on the relationship between self-reported behavior and that which is officially detected and recorded.

The three longitudinal studies are prospective in nature; that is, subjects are repeatedly contacted to report on their current and recent violent activities. Deterioration of recall is minimized by avoiding lengthy gaps between interviews. Reporting periods were either 6 or 12 months, and all self-report violence data have been calculated for annual periods. Sample retention has been excellent; as of 1997, at least 84 percent of the subjects had been retained at each of the sites, and the average rate of retention across all interview periods was 90 percent.

Samples were carefully drawn to capture inner-city youth considered at high risk for involvement in delinquency and drug abuse. The samples can be described as probability samples, in which youth at greater risk are oversampled.

bullet Denver's sample includes 1,527 youth (806 boys and 721 girls) who were 7, 9, 11, 13, and 15 years old when data collection commenced in 1988. This sample represents the general population of youth residing in 20,000 households in high-risk neighborhoods in Denver.
bullet Pittsburgh's sample consists of 1,517 boys who ranged in age from 7 to 13 years and attended grades 1, 4, and 7 when data collection began in 1987. This sample represents the general population of boys attending Pittsburgh's public schools.
bullet Rochester's sample of 1,000 youth (729 boys and 271 girls) was drawn from students attending grades 7 and 8. This sample represents the entire range of seventh and eighth grade students attending Rochester's public schools.

The Causes and Correlates program has contributed to an understanding of a variety of topics related to juvenile violence and delinquency, including developing and testing causal models for chronic violent offending; examining interrelationships among gang involvement, drug selling, and gun ownership/use; changes over time in delinquency and drug use; and neighborhood, individual, and social risk factors for serious juvenile offenders. Major findings from the three projects to date include the following:

bullet Delinquency, drug use, and other problem behaviors begin at earlier ages than previously thought. For many children, these behaviors are evident before the teenage years. The co-occurrence of problem behaviors is also quite common. Serious delinquents are likely to be involved in drug use, precocious sexual activity, school failure, juvenile gangs, gun ownership, and other related behaviors.
bullet There has been a shift in the demographic characteristics of adolescent violent offenders. Older males, children (as young as 10 years old), and females reported greater involvement in serious violence than would have been expected from previous research.
bullet The development of disruptive and delinquent behavior in boys generally takes place in an orderly, progressive fashion, with less serious problem behaviors preceding more serious problems. Three distinct developmental pathways were identified: authority conflict (e.g., defiance and running away), covert actions (e.g., lying and stealing), and overt actions (e.g., aggression and violent behavior). Individuals may proceed along single or multiple developmental pathways toward serious antisocial behavior.
bullet Childhood maltreatment is associated with an increased risk of at least 25 percent for engaging in a host of adolescent problem behaviors: serious and violent delinquency, drug use, poor performance in school, mental illness, and teenage pregnancy. Furthermore, a history of maltreatment nearly doubles the risk that teenagers will experience multiple problems during adolescence.

Each project has disseminated the results of its research through a broad range of publications, reports, and presentations.

In 1997, OJJDP initiated the Youth Development Series, a series of Bulletins created to present findings from the Program of Research on the Causes and Correlates of Delinquency. To date, four Bulletins have been released: Epidemiology of Serious Violence, In the Wake of Childhood Maltreatment, Developmental Pathways in Boys' Disruptive and Delinquent Behavior, and Gang Members and Delinquent Behavior.

For more information on OJJDP's Causes and Correlates studies or to obtain copies of the Youth Development Series Bulletins or other Youth Gang Series Bulletins, contact the Juvenile Justice Clearinghouse by telephone at 800-638-8736; by mail at P.O. Box 6000, Rockville, MD 20849-6000; by e-mail at; or by viewing OJJDP's home page.

Gang Membership, Delinquent Peers, and Delinquent Behavior Juvenile Justice Bulletin · October 1998