Broadly defined, a risk factor for juvenile offending is any experience, circumstance, or personal characteristic that increases the probability that a given youth will commit a legal transgression. No single risk factor causes offending; many youths who have been exposed to various risk factors never commit a crime. Rather, juvenile offending typically emerges as a result of complex interactions among a wide variety of risk and protective factors that vary from child to child. Combined risk factors tend to exhibit additive effects, with the likelihood of offending increasing as the number of risk factors increases. Also, the impact of a given risk factor varies across the life course; some may have an effect only at a particular developmental stage. Attempts to mitigate possible risk factors must, therefore, take into account a youth’s developmental status. The risk factors for different types of offending vary as well. Studies have found that juvenile offenders tend to follow one of two possible patterns of offending. The majority exhibit adolescence-limited offending, which begins during adolescence and subsides during the transition to young adulthood. Life-course-persistent offenders, in contrast, tend to exhibit conduct problems early (prior to adolescence) and continue to offend into adulthood.
Risk factors for juvenile offending are numerous and wide-ranging. Some (such as gender) are unalterable. Others (such as neighborhood conditions or family dynamics), though changeable in theory, are systemic and difficult to control. Nevertheless, by understanding the wide range of risk factors for juvenile offending, prevention programs and treatments can be tailored to meet the unique needs of the various populations of youths they aim to help. The predominant factors can be grouped into three broad categories: individual characteristics, social influences, and community conditions. This entry describes well-established risk factors in these domains.
Risk Factors and Individual Characteristics
One of the best predictors of future delinquency is a history of antisocial behavior in childhood. Adolescents who engage in antisocial behavior (e.g., theft, fighting, vandalism, fire setting, etc.) before puberty (prior to age 13) are more likely to be delinquent than those who have not engaged in these acts prior to puberty. Research also suggests that violent careers often begin with relatively minor forms of antisocial behavior that escalate over time. Those with an early arrest (before age 13) are more likely to become chronic offenders by age 18. Such chronic offenders make up a small percentage of the offending population but are responsible for the majority of serious violent crimes. In addition, youths whose delinquent careers begin early tend to engage in a broad range of antisocial behavior rather than specialize in a particular type of offending. Early childhood may thus be an important developmental period to target for the prevention of juvenile delinquency.
Chronic abuse of drugs and alcohol is a precursor to other dangerous behaviors, including criminal activity. Although some degree of experimentation with drugs and alcohol is not unusual during adolescence, excessive use is a risk factor for delinquency.
Cognitive deficits have also been implicated as a risk factor for delinquent behavior. Low intelligence quotient (IQ) scores, weak verbal abilities, learning disabilities, and difficulty with concentration or attention have all been associated with subsequent delinquent behavior. Social-cognitive development is especially important because it affects one’s ability to learn social norms and expectations. For example, studies have shown that delinquent youths are more likely than their peers to think that other children’s behavior is deliberately hostile, even when it is not. Though not conclusive, studies suggest that such cognitive deficits usually precede the development of delinquency and not vice versa.
Youths who are impulsive, hyperactive, and engage in risk-taking behaviors are more prone to delinquent acts than those who are not. In fact, self-control (or the lack thereof) has been suggested by some to be the root individual-level determinant of crime throughout the life course. Persons with low self-control lack diligence, find it difficult to delay gratification, have little tolerance for frustration, lack interest in long-term pursuits, and have little ability to resolve problems through verbal rather than physical means. While youths who react to new stimuli with anxiety or timidity tend to be less likely to commit antisocial acts, youths who approach new stimuli impulsively or aggressively tend to be more likely to offend. Interestingly, motor restlessness (fidgeting, or the inability to sit still) in kindergarten is a stronger predictor of delinquency between 10 and 13 years of age than low anxiety or a lack of prosocial behavior. In fact, children who become persistent offenders are more likely than their peers to suffer from attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Neuropsychological deficits (often initially manifested as subtle cognitive deficits or a difficult temperament) have been linked to delinquency and chronic offending. Anatomical, chemical, and neurological abnormalities are more prevalent among chronic criminal offenders and those exhibiting recurrent antisocial behavior than among the general population. These abnormalities may be caused by damage to a specific brain region (i.e., through injury) or by a variety of behavioral or environmental factors (e.g., poor nutrition, exposure to violence, substance abuse). For example, research has found that prenatal and perinatal complications have been associated with later antisocial behavior. Adolescence is a time of marked brain development in many regions, including areas implicated in various aspects of self-control. As such, neurological development during adolescence has a significant effect on emotion regulation. Researchers are actively investigating the complex interrelations among biological and psychological factors as correlates of conduct problems.
Risk Factors and Social Influences
Family structure, family characteristics, and family dynamics have all been connected to juvenile offending. The effect of family characteristics is most pronounced in early childhood. While some research has reported that children from single-parent households are at increased risk of delinquent behavior, these differences are often found to be negligible when differences in socioeconomic status are taken into account. Interestingly, family size has been connected to juvenile offending, with youths having more siblings being more likely to engage in delinquent behaviors. The most powerful family-level predictors of juvenile delinquency include lack of parental supervision, inconsistent discipline, and hostile or rejecting parenting styles. Also, children who witness or are victims of abuse in the home are at even greater risk of engaging in antisocial behavior. Aggressive behavior has been found to run in families: Having an antisocial sibling, especially one who is close in age, increases a child’s likelihood of engaging in delinquent behavior, and youths whose parents engage in antisocial behavior are more likely to do so themselves.
The importance of peers in youths’ social networks grows substantially during adolescence. It is thus not surprising that most youths commit crimes in groups and that certain characteristics of a youth’s peer group increase his or her likelihood of offending. Foremost, individuals with delinquent friends are more likely to offend than individuals without delinquent friends. While peers are known to influence an individual’s behavior (known as socialization), research also demonstrates that adolescents who are delinquent are more likely to seek out and befriend other delinquents (known as selection). Antisocial peer influence can thus be self-reinforcing. The age and gender of an adolescent’s peers are also important factors; having older friends is associated with a greater likelihood of offending, and male peers are generally more likely to encourage antisocial behavior than female peers. Gang membership reflects the most extreme example of deviant peer influence on offending. Interestingly, aggressive children who are universally rejected by their peers are at greater risk of becoming chronic juvenile offenders than are aggressive children who are not rejected.
The negative influence of peers tends to arise as a key risk factor later in development, whereas family influences typically are most important during earlier stages. Nevertheless, the influence of peers is magnified when the family environment is not healthy.
Risk Factors and Community Conditions
Children raised in disadvantaged neighborhoods are at greater risk of becoming juvenile offenders than children from more affluent neighborhoods. This neighborhood effect remains significant even when differences in school quality and family socioeconomic status are taken into account. Since disadvantaged neighborhoods have weak social controls due to isolation and high residential turnover, delinquent behavior is more likely to go unnoticed or be ignored by others in the community. The lack of social control in poorly monitored neighborhoods not only provides more opportunities for antisocial behavior but also increases youths’ exposure to criminal behavior by others in the community. Such exposure is yet another risk factor for subsequent offending.
Youths who experience problems at school are at increased risk of becoming delinquent. Problems at school can include a wide range of experiences, such as poor scholastic performance, weak connections to school, and low educational aspirations. Such factors are associated with delinquent behavior even when cognitive factors (such as intelligence or attention deficits) are taken into account. Youths who drop out of high school are more likely than those who graduate to engage in delinquent activities. School policies such as suspension and expulsion have been found to exacerbate delinquent behavior among at-risk youths.
Risk factors combine in complex ways to influence individual behavior. Although these factors can be used to predict the relative probabilities of offending in large groups with similar characteristics, they cannot be reliably used to predict the behavior of specific individuals. Even among groups with numerous risk factors, the majority of youths generally do not offend, making it extremely difficult to use such factors to identify individual future offenders with meaningful accuracy. The number of “false positives” from such predictions would exceed the number of “true positives,” and the potential stigma of being labeled as a “future offender” would itself be detrimental.
- Farrington, D. P. (1995). The development of offending and antisocial behavior from childhood: Key findings from the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 36, 929-964.
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- Moffitt, T. (1993). Adolescence-limited and life-course-persistent antisocial behavior: A developmental taxonomy. Psychological Review, 100, 674-701.
- Office of the Surgeon General. (2001). Youth violence: A report of the Surgeon General. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Secretary, Office of Public Health and Science, Office of the Surgeon General. Retrieved fromhttp://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK44294/
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