I. A National Strategy for Juvenile Delinquency Prevention

2. From Research to Practice

The foundation of effective delinquency prevention practice is built on solid empirical research findings. To provide the solid foundation on which communities can frame their prevention and intervention strategies, OJJDP has supported numerous research projects that have significantly contributed to what is known about juvenile crime and delinquency and effective approaches to prevent and stop it. This section highlights key findings from two ongoing research efforts that are providing ground-breaking knowledge and understanding about the developmental pathways to juvenile crime and delinquency and helping to bridge the gap between research and practice by providing information that has direct implications for prevention programming: The Program of Research on the Causes and Correlates of Delinquency and the Study Group on Serious and Violent Juvenile Offenders.

2.1 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).

  • Boys tend to enter these pathways to serious delinquency when they fail to accomplish age-appropriate developmental tasks, which include learning to solve social problems nonaggressively, to be honest and respect other people's property, and to respect authority. These tasks are normally accomplished during the preschool and elementary school years (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 theirparents, 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). While socioeconomic status impacts chronic offenders' delinquency rates, neither ethnicity nor family structure (i.e., single-parent or two-parent household) appears to do so (Kelley, Loeber, Keenan, & DeLamatre, 1997).

  • Gang members account for a disproportionate share of the crime problem relative to their share of the population. While less than one-third of the youth involved in the Rochester study reported being gang members, these youth accounted for two-thirds of all delinquent acts that were self-reported over a 4-year period, 86 percent of the serious delinquent acts, 68 percent of the violent delinquent acts, and 70 percent of the drug sales that were reported. These findings are very similar to the results of other recent studies in Seattle, Washington and Denver, Colorado (Loeber & Farrington, 1998).

  • Students with learning disabilities and behavioral disorders are more likely to engage in criminal and delinquent behaviors and be incarcerated than are other youth. In the Pittsburgh study, boys with a diagnosis of Attention-Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) were more likely to become chronic juvenile offenders than were boys without ADHD (Kelley, Loeber, Keenan, & DeLamatre, 1997).

  • Children who are abused or neglected are predisposed to mental health problems, low academic achievement, substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, and/or violent criminal behavior in later years. Based on findings from the Rochester Youth Development Study, childhoodmaltreatment is associated with an increased risk of at least 25 percent for each of these problem behaviors. Moreover, a history of childhood maltreatment nearly doubles the risk that teenagers will experience multiple problems during adolescence (Kelley, Thornberry, & Smith, 1997).

We also know that the development of disruptive and delinquent behaviors is often left 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).

Other studies on the causes of delinquency have identified two other conditions that affect child development and delinquency: adolescent childbearing and children's connections to their fathers. A synthesis of findings from eight separate studies on the consequences and costs of adolescent motherhood has shown that the sons of adolescent mothers are twice as likely to be victims of abuse and neglect and 2.7 times more likely to be incarcerated than the sons of mothers of who delay childbearing until their early 20's (Maynard & Garry, 1997). Other studies have shown that children who lack an ongoing, positive connection to their fathers do worse in school, have fewer positive relationships with their peers, and are more likely to become involved in the juvenile justice system than children with such a relationship. The National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) has identified a number of barriers that prevent fathers from effective parenting, including poverty, poor relationships with the mother, incarceration, and difficulties making "the transition from biological fatherhood to committed fatherhood" (Garry, 1997).

These research findings have a number of 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).

  • To help ensure that children engaged in problem behaviors are brought to the attention of the appropriate service providers in a timely fashion, parents and teachers should be educated about risk and protective factors, the developmental pathways that lead to crime and delinquency, and the support services available to them. Both parents and teachers need to understand the importance of detecting, preventing, and intervening in problem behaviors before they progress toward juvenile crime and delinquency (Kelley, Loeber, Keenan, & DeLamatre, 1997).

  • Age-appropriate screening techniques should be used to assess and track the type, frequency, intensity, probable causes, and locations/settings of problem behaviors among at-risk children. Those who persistently engage in problem behaviors in multiple settings (e.g., home, school, peer group) are at greater risk for crime and delinquency (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 inmastering 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).

  • Special emphasis should be placed on preventing youth from joining gangs (Loeber & Farrington, 1998), reducing teen pregnancies (Maynard & Garry, 1997), and helping fathers overcome barriers to effective parenting (Garry, 1997).3

Not only does this research reinforce the underlying assumptions of the Community Prevention Grants Program model, it also provides empirical information that will help guide effective local delinquency prevention programming. Through a series of bulletins entitled the Youth Development Series, OJJDP is widely disseminating key findings from this research program to audiences nationwide.

2.2 Serious and Violent Juvenile Crime

Recognizing that States and communities implementing the Comprehensive Strategy would 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. Made up of 29 leading juvenile justice and criminology scholars, including lead researchers from the Program of Research on the Causes and Correlates of Delinquency, the StudyGroup 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 published its most recent findings in a report that integrates the growing body of knowledge about risk and protective factors and the developmental pathways that lead to SVJ crime with knowledge about delinquency prevention and intervention programs (Loeber & Farrington, 1998).

The Study Group has drawn the following general conclusions from its analysis of SVJ crime data:

  • 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.

  • Many known predictors of SVJ offending could be incorporated into screening devices for the early identification of SVJ offenders.

  • 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, andinterpersonal 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 and follow up with program participants.

The Study Group also identified a number of areas for further research and evaluation. For example, there is a clear need for information about which delinquency prevention approaches work best for different age groups and for different types of offenders, particularly serious and violent offenders (Loeber & Farrington, 1998).

2.4 Translating Knowledge into Action

Together, these research projects have greatly increased our understanding of the factors associated with juvenile delinquency, the characteristics and developmental pathways of serious and violent juvenile offenders, and effective and promising approaches for preventing and intervening in juvenile delinquency. Moreover, they indicate that OJJDP's Comprehensive Strategy and Title V Community Prevention Grants Program are headed in the right direction. To help ensure that States and local jurisdictions benefit from this research, OJJDP regularly disseminates information through a variety of print and electronic media: a series of fact sheets, bulletins, research briefs, and program summaries; a multimedia CD-ROM; its Web site; and national teleconferences, as well as through various training and technical assistance packages.

Everything that we learn from the research about the causes and correlates of juvenile delinquency and crime puts us in a better position to prevent it from happening. And the Community Prevention GrantsProgram provides communities with a solid framework for applying what we know and continue to learn to their local delinquency prevention efforts. As illustrated in the following chapter, communities nationwide have used this framework to implement comprehensive delinquency prevention programs and have made notable progress in addressing the precursors to juvenile crime and delinquency.

3. The National Center for Children in Poverty has identified five promising approaches that States have developed to encourage responsible fatherhood: 1) increase public awareness about responsible fatherhood, 2) prevent unwanted or too-early fatherhood, 3) promote fathers' economic responsibility as providers, 4) encourage fathers as nurturers and enhance family and social relationships, and 5) build leadership capacity around fatherhood issues at both State and local levels (Garry, 1997).

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1997 Report to Congress: Title V Incentive Grants for Local Delinquency Prevention Programs