Critical Findings

OJJDP-sponsored research provides solid findings in a number of critical areas that affect how the Nation understands and responds to the problem of juvenile delinquency.

Serious and Violent Juvenile Offenders

Serious and violent juvenile (SVJ) offenders constitute a small, yet dangerous, population in the United States. Although their numbers tend to be small, these juveniles account for a disproportionate amount of crime in the Nation's communities. Recognizing the need to build a solid research foundation to develop effective policies and responses to this population, OJJDP assembled a study group of 22 distinguished researchers in 1995. The Study Group on Serious and Violent Juvenile Offenders collaboratively examined the current research on risk and protective factors, the development of SVJ offending careers, and effective prevention and intervention programs for these offenders.2

Definition of Serious and Violent Offenses

Serious violent offenses include homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, and kidnaping.

Serious nonviolent offenses include burglary, motor vehicle theft, theft of more than $100, arson, drug trafficking, and extortion.

What Have We Learned?

The Study Group found that most SVJ offenders are male and usually display early minor behavior problems that lead to more serious delinquent acts. The majority of SVJ offenders tend to have multiple problems such as substance abuse and mental health difficulties in addition to truancy, suspension, expulsion, and dropping out of school. Further, SVJ offenders are disproportionately victims of violence.

  • Actual delinquency careers of SVJ offenders are quite different from what is officially recorded. Although the average age of serious male offenders at their first contact with the juvenile justice system was 14.5 years, researchers found that the actual delinquency careers of these offenders (based on their own statements and those of their mothers) started much earlier. Those who ended up in court for serious offenses at age 14.5 typically began to have minor problems at age 7, progressed to moderately serious behavior problems at age 9.5, and committed serious delinquency offenses at age 11.9. On average, more than 7 years elapsed between the earliest minor problem behaviors and the first court appearance for an offense.

  • Many SVJ offenders are never arrested, and the majority of violent juveniles have only one officially recorded violent crime as a juvenile. Juvenile courts do not routinely deal with offenders below the age of 12 because they are not detected or not referred to court. The potential SVJ offender is often not identified as such at his or her first appearance in court, in part because the first arrest is typically for a less serious offense.

  • There are effective treatments for many delinquent juveniles, both in the community and in institutional settings. The Study Group looked at the circumstances and effectiveness of treatment for two groups of serious juvenile offenders: those in noncustodial programs in the community (e.g., parole, probation) and those placed in custodial programs. The most successful programs for juveniles in the community were those that focused on enhancing interpersonal skills, provided individual counseling, and encouraged a commitment to changing behavior. Interpersonal skills training was also a focal point of the most effective programs in institutional settings. Other effective institutional models were small, family-style group homes administered by "teaching parents" who developed positive relationships with the juveniles, monitored their progress in school, and provided individual counseling and support as needed.

Members of the Study Group on SVJ Offenders


David P. Farrington, Ph.D., University of Cambridge, England
Rolf Loeber, Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA


David Altschuler, Ph.D., The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD
Alfred Blumstein, Ph.D., Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA
Richard F. Catalano, Ph.D., University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Julius Debro, Ph.D., University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Peter Greenwood, Ph.D., The RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, CA
Nancy G. Guerra, Ph.D., University of Illinois at Chicago
Darnell F. Hawkins, Ph.D., University of Illinois at Chicago
J. David Hawkins, Ph.D., University of Washington, Seattle, WA
James C. Howell, Ph.D., Institute for Intergovernmental Research, Tallahassee, FL
David Huizinga, Ph.D., University of Colorado, Boulder, CO
Barry A. Krisberg, Ph.D., National Council on Crime and Delinquency,
      San Francisco, CA
John H. Laub, Ph.D., University of Maryland, College Park, MD
Marc Le Blanc, Ph.D., University of Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Mark W. Lipsey, Ph.D., Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN
Walter Miller, Ph.D., Cambridge, MA
Mark Moore, Ph.D., Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
Howard N. Snyder, Ph.D., The National Center for Juvenile Justice, Pittsburgh, PA
Terence P. Thornberry, Ph.D., University at Albany, State University of New York
Patrick Tolan, Ph.D., University of Illinois at Chicago
Gail A. Wasserman, Ph.D., Columbia University, New York, NY

What Does This Mean?

  • Focusing on early intervention with children who may be at risk for delinquent behavior is crucial. Researchers learned that opportunities for early intervention are often missed. By the time SVJ offenders come to the attention of the juvenile justice system, they may have spent several years committing minor offenses and developing serious behavior problems. This finding reinforces the importance of early intervention; it is never too early to intervene.

  • Comprehensive community intervention efforts are most effective. Researchers also learned that the most effective early intervention efforts are those that address multiple problems and occur simultaneously in the home and at school. Community-based intervention, which uses a coordinated response from the juvenile justice and mental health systems, schools, and child welfare agencies, is needed to identify SVJ offenders and address the overall problem of violence in society.

  • Providing multiple services based on individual offender needs also promotes positive effects. The researchers learned that there are effective treatments for SVJ offenders. When considering appropriate treatment and alternative sanctions, it is important to take into account the severity of the presenting offense, the risk of recidivism for serious offenses, and the individual needs of the juvenile offender. The most effective treatments (both custodial and noncustodial) incorporate interpersonal skills training and cognitive-behavioral programs.

Making Research More Policy Relevant: Policy Forums on the Serious and Violent Juvenile

OJJDP held three policy forums in 1998 to provide an opportunity for policymakers and practitioners to learn about the Study Group's findings and discuss the implications of this research for State and local policies and programs. Policy forums were held in three cities: Chicago, IL; Sacramento, CA; and Washington, DC. In addition, OJJDP provided a fourth satellite forum that was broadcast to more than 700 downlink sites. The audiences for these forums included researchers, law enforcement personnel, juvenile justice agency directors and personnel, direct service workers, State and local government officials, judges, attorneys, legislators, and the media. It is estimated that more than 15,000 individuals attended or viewed the policy forums.

Selective Bibliography on Serious and Violent Juvenile Offenders

Loeber, R., and Farrington, D.P., eds. 1997. Never Too Early, Never Too Late: Risk Factors and Successful Interventions for Serious and Violent Juvenile Offenders. Final Report of the Study Group on Serious and Violent Juvenile Offenders (grant number 95-JD-FX-0018). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Available from the Juvenile Justice Clearinghouse, 800-638-8736.

Loeber, R., and Farrington, D.P., eds. 1998. Serious & Violent Juvenile Offenders: Risk Factors and Successful Interventions. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. 1998. Serious and Violent Juvenile Offenders. Bulletin. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. To order, call the Juvenile Justice Clearinghouse at 800-638-8736.

2The full findings of the Study Group's research can be found in Loeber and Farrington's 1998 publication, Serious & Violent Juvenile Offenders: Risk Factors and Successful Interventions; the Study Group Report on which this publication is based is available from the Juvenile Justice Clearinghouse (Loeber and Farrington, 1997). See the selective bibliography (above) for more information on both publications.

OJJDP Research: Making a Difference for Juveniles August 1999