1. What the Research Tells Us About Juvenile Delinquency Prevention

The foundation of effective delinquency prevention is solid empirical research. To build this foundation, OJJDP has supported numerous research efforts that have significantly enhanced our understanding about the developmental pathways to juvenile crime and delinquency, including:

  • The Program of Research on the Causes and Correlates of Delinquency,

  • Foundations of Risk and Protection Focused Prevention, and

  • The Study Group on Serious and Violent Juvenile Offenders.

Not only have these efforts greatly enhanced our understanding of juvenile crime and delinquency, but they also have helped to bridge the gap between research and practice by focusing on the implications of the research for prevention programming.

1.1 The Causes and Correlates of Delinquency

Since 1986, OJJDP has funded three coordinated, longitudinal research projects that constitute the largest shared-measurement approach ever achieved in delinquency research. Collectively known as the Program of Research on the Causes and Correlates of Delinquency, research teams at the State University of New York at Albany, the University of Colorado, and the University of Pittsburgh have collaborated extensively to design and conduct studies of at-risk youth in Rochester, New York; Denver, Colorado; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The goal of this large longitudinal study is to provide an empirical foundation for a new generation of preventive, judicial, and therapeutic delinquency interventions (Kelley, Huizinga, Thornberry, & Loeber, 1997).

As a result of this program of research, we now know that:

  • Most chronic juvenile offenders start their criminal career prior to age 12 (Wilson & Howell, 1994). For some youth, involvement in serious violent behavior begins as early as 10 years of age (Kelley, Huizinga, Thornberry, & Loeber, 1997). Moreover, early indicators of juvenile delinquency may be apparent among boys as young as ages 1 to 5 years old (Kelley, Loeber, Keenan, & DeLamatre, 1997).

  • The development of delinquent behavior by boys generally takes place in an orderly, predictable fashion, with less serious problem behaviors preceding more serious problem behaviors. Boys tend to follow three developmental pathways as they progress to more serious problem behaviors: conflict with authority (from stubborn behavior, to defiance, to authority avoidance), covert actions (from lying, to property damage, to burglary and theft), and overt actions (from aggression, to fighting, to violence). Once youth have penetrated the more serious stages of a pathway to delinquency, it is more difficult to steer them toward healthy behaviors (Kelley, Loeber, Keenan, & DeLamatre, 1997).

  • A small number of chronic violent offenders commit a large percentage of all violent offenses. These chronic violent offenders tend to be less attached to and less monitored by their parents, less committed to school, and less attached to teachers. They also tend to have more delinquent peers; reside in poor, high-crime-rate areas; and belong to gangs. In general, these youth start earlier and continue later in their offending than do other juvenile offenders (Wilson & Howell, 1994).

We also know that the development of disruptive and delinquent behaviors often goes unchecked among many juvenile offenders. In Pittsburgh, problem behavior had been exhibited for an average of 6 years by boys in the eighth grade who had committed delinquent acts, but only 41 percent of these boys' parents had ever sought help from anyone, including friends, family members, or professionals. Further, only 20 percent of these delinquent eighth graders had been in contact with the juvenile court (Kelley, Loeber, Keenan, & DeLamatre, 1997).

These research findings hold important implications for delinquency prevention programming:

  • Preventing delinquency requires early identification of the risk and protective factors that affect youth development. Because prevention efforts are more successful and cost-effective if the child has not already persistently performed a negative behavior or penetrated the more serious stages of a pathway to delinquency, we must identify and address the early warning signs of problem behaviors as they emerge, from birth to adulthood (Kelley, Loeber, Keenan, & DeLamatre, 1997).

  • Juvenile justice, school, child welfare, medical, and mental health service systems must collaborate to develop comprehensive, age-appropriate strategies to assist children in mastering key developmental tasks. Comprehensive approaches that meet the needs, identify the interests, and foster the strengths of at-risk children as they progress from birth to adulthood hold the greatest promise for reducing juvenile crime (Kelley, Loeber, Keenan, & DeLamatre, 1997).

This research provides empirical information to guide effective delinquency prevention programming and reinforces the underlying principles of the Community Prevention Grants Program -- that comprehensive, multidisciplinary approaches addressing risk and protection factors through age appropriate activities will lead to reductions in juvenile delinquency.

1.2 The Foundations of Risk- and Protection- Focused Delinquency Prevention

More than 30 years of research have identified many of the precursors of juvenile delinquency and violence (i.e., risk factors), as well as the factors that help buffer children against their influence (i.e., protective factors). Risk factors for delinquent behavior and youth violence include a number of conditions, attitudes, or behaviors that increase the likelihood that a child will develop delinquent behaviors in adolescence, leading to crime and arrest. Risk factors exist in several domains, including the community, school, family, peer group, and within the individual. Examples of risk factors include the availability of firearms in the community, low neighborhood attachment, community disorganization, family management problems, early academic failure, lack of commitment to school, and association with peers who engage in the problem behavior (Developmental and Research Programs, 1996). The Report Appendix presents a list of risk factors that multiple studies have linked to unhealthy adolescent behaviors.

Countering risk factors are protective factors, conditions that protect juveniles either by reducing the impact of risks or by changing the way they respond to risks (e.g., increasing a child's resilience). Ultimately, they can help promote positive behavior, health, well-being, and personal success. Protective factors include resilient temperament (i.e., having the ability to adjust or recover from misfortune), positive adult and peer relationships that promote bonding, and healthy beliefs and clear standards (Developmental and Research Programs, 1996). Examples of healthy beliefs include believing it is best for children to be drug free and to do well in school. Examples of clear standards include establishing consistent no drug and alcohol family rules and establishing the expectation that a youngster do well in school.

The following generalizations regarding risk and protective factors are significant for community prevention planning and development (Howell, 1995):

  • Risks exist in multiple domains (community, family, school, individual/peer).

  • Common risk factors predict diverse behavior problems.

  • The more risk factors present, the greater the risk for juvenile problem behavior.

  • Risk factors have consistent effects across different races and cultures.

  • Protective factors can help buffer exposure to risks.

The implication of the research is clear: if the risks in young people's lives can be identified and reduced, or countered with protective factors, the possibility of preventing adolescent problem behaviors associated with those risks is greatly increased.

Strategies that work to reduce known risk factors and enhance protective factors have gained widespread acceptance among researchers and practitioners as effective approaches to prevent delinquency and other juvenile problem behaviors. Several risk- and protection-focused delinquency prevention models exist, each differing slightly in scope, emphasis, and terminology. They include, for example, Communities That Care (Developmental Research and Programs, 1994), the Benson Asset Model (Benson, Galbraith, & Espeland, 1994), the Health Realization model (Benard, 1991), and Pransky's Prevention Pyramid (Pransky, 1991).

1.3 The Study Group on Serious and Violent Juvenile Crime

Recognizing that States and communities require up-to-date, detailed information about the risk and protective factors for serious and violent juvenile (SVJ) offending and the effectiveness of SVJ crime prevention and intervention strategies, OJJDP convened the Study Group on Serious and Violent Juvenile Offenders in 1995. Made up of 22 leading juvenile justice and criminology scholars, including lead researchers from the Program of Research on the Causes and Correlates of Delinquency, the Study Group has synthesized decades of research on factors that affect SVJ crime rates and strategies that aim to prevent and/or reduce SVJ offending.

The Study Group has drawn the following general conclusions from its analysis of SVJ crime data (Loeber & Farrington, 1998):

  • SVJ offenders are a distinct group of offenders who tend to start early and continue late in their offending and who are responsible for a disproportionate amount of all juvenile crime. By targeting effective early delinquency prevention and intervention programs at this population, communities can achieve dramatic reductions in their overall juvenile crime rates.

  • Many potential SVJ offenders below the age of 12 are not routinely processed in juvenile court, and services in the community for such offenders appear unnecessarily fragmented, leading to a lack of public accountability for young potential SVJ offenders. Communities must integrate their juvenile justice, child welfare, mental health, and public health services in order to identify, track, and redirect potential SVJ offenders. Otherwise, these youth will continue to slip through the cracks.

  • It is never too early to engage at-risk youth and their families in effective delinquency prevention programs, including home visitation of pregnant women, support programs for teenage parents, parent training, preschool intellectual enrichment programs, and interpersonal skills training.

  • Communities must attempt to decrease the prevalence of gangs, the availability of firearms, and the prevalence of drug markets, all of which place youth at risk for SVJ crime.

  • Delinquency prevention and intervention programs should address multiple problems that lead to delinquency.

The Study Group findings, coupled with the earlier research on risk and protective factors and the causes and correlates of delinquency studies, underscore the need for communities to adapt integrated, research-based approaches to prevention. Towards this end, OJJDP is supporting continued research, including a new Study Group on Very Young Offenders, which will focus specifically on what is known about the prevalence and prevention of very young offending under the age of 13.

Previous Contents Next

1998 Report to Congress: Title V Incentive Grants for Local Delinquency Prevention Programs OJJDP Report