Prevention: Juveniles as Potential Offenders

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If a program prevents the first delinquent act, the social harm associated with subsequent delinquency can be avoided. To deliver on this promise, however, prevention programs must be effective and targeted to those most likely to offend. Evaluation research has challenged the effectiveness of prevention efforts, prompting one careful reviewer to conclude: "Prevention projects don't work and they waste money, violate the rights of juveniles and their families, inspire bizarre suggestions and programs, and fail to affect the known correlates of urban delinquency . . . it is time to get out of the business of attempting to prevent delinquency" (Lundman, p. 245). In contrast to this appraisal, another careful examination concludes that such efforts "show promise in their potential for helping participants and having positive spillover effects for other members of society" (Karoly et al., p. 107).

The differences in these assessments reflect the different programs, outcomes, and evaluation procedures examined. This entry critically examines prevention efforts and their evaluation, and identifies the most promising new approaches. Early attempts, such as the 1825 opening of the New York House of Refuge and sixteenth-century British Poor Laws, aimed to prevent delinquency by housing a population one would today characterize as "at-risk youth." Since this time alternative approaches have emerged, including individualized treatment, early childhood intervention, and programs targeting adolescents, low-income communities, and youths in the juvenile justice system.

Individualized treatments

In the early 1900s delinquency prevention was based on individualized case-by-case treatment (Healy). Progressive Era reformers launched well meaning but vague efforts that were ultimately undercut by administrators (Rothman). Individualized treatment was predicated on early identification, using instruments such as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (Hathaway and Monachesi), the Glueck Social Prediction Table (Glueck and Glueck), and reports of teachers, police officers, and playground workers (Powers and Witmer) to identify future delinquents. These scales tended to "overpredict" delinquency, misclassifying many youths. This is especially problematic since empirical evidence suggests that intervention treatment for high-risk youths may result in harmful consequences (McCord). Although predictive accuracy has improved over the years, the high "false positive" rate of the assessment tools and the heterogeneous nature of delinquency continue to impede individualized prevention efforts.

Since the 1980s, Multisystemic Therapy (MST) has revived individualized approaches, using treatment teams to address problems in each of the key settings in which the youth is embedded. MST interventions include family treatment to help parents monitor and discipline their children, peer interventions to remove them from deviant peers, and school and vocational interventions to advance their future potential. Some evaluations show reduced arrest rates among MST participants relative to those receiving other services or no treatment (Henggeler).

Early intervention

In the 1960s, the Perry Preschool program combined weekly home visits by teachers with early education for disadvantaged African American children. Evaluations showed that program benefits (such as increased tax revenues and reduced social service and criminal justice expenditures) significantly outweighed program costs. Students enrolled in the program were 12 percent less likely to be arrested than the control group, with an average reduction of 2.3 arrests per student (Karoly et al., p. 139).

These findings and research on brain development in early childhood have spurred subsequent interventions with young children. For prevention researchers, early childhood provides a "window of opportunity" for intervention, as well as a "window of vulnerability" to poverty and dysfunctional homes (Karoly et al., p. xi). Strategies such as preschool programs, home visits, and parental training have all shown promise. Randomized evaluations of nurse home-visit programs show significant reductions in delinquency (Olds, Hill, and Rumsey). Family therapy with parental training may also be an effective early intervention, at comparatively low cost (Zigler, Taussig, and Black).

Older youths

Beyond early childhood, prevention programs for older, at-risk youths have also shown some success. Graduation incentives (cash and other benefits) to induce disadvantaged high school students to graduate may prevent more crimes per dollar spent than many early intervention efforts (Greenwood et al.). Although program results have yet to be evaluated against a meaningful comparison group, school-based Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT) may reduce gang activity among middle-school youths. GREAT participants engaged in 4 percent less delinquency and reported more negative attitudes about gangs than nonparticipants and program dropouts (Esbensen and Osgood).


Some prevention programs operate at the neighborhood or community level, such as area projects (Shaw and McKay) and detached gang workers (Dixon and Wright). The Chicago Area Project (CAP), which began in 1932, was the first effort to organize local self-help groups in high-delinquency areas (Shaw and McKay). Although there is some evidence that CAP and other community-based programs may reduce delinquency rates (Schlossman et al. 1984), these programs have yet to be rigorously evaluated.

The Gautreaux project is also a neighborhood prevention program, although it involves moving families from low-income into urban or suburban middle-income neighborhoods rather than attempting to change low-income neighborhoods themselves. Compared to the urban movers, children of families moving into suburbs were more likely to complete high school, attend college, and work full-time (Duncan and Raudenbush). A similar intervention, the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) experiment, examined arrest outcomes. Boys whose families had moved from low-income to middle-income neighborhoods had 17 percent fewer arrests for violent offenses and 13 percent fewer "other" arrests as compared to a control group (Duncan and Raudenbush). Because of neighborhood differences in enforcement, however, these evaluations must be replicated with self-reported delinquency measures before firm conclusions can be drawn.

Juvenile justice

Many juvenile justice efforts aim to prevent minor offenders from escalating into more serious offenders. In the Scared Straight project, prison inmates confronted minor delinquents to threaten them with the consequences of illegal activities. This intervention failed to prevent crime and may have actually increased delinquent involvement by setting in motion a "delinquency fulfilling prophecy" (Finckenauer, p. 169). Other juvenile justice efforts with mixed results (often no better nor worse than institutionalization) include guided group interaction (Empey and Rabow) and diversion (Lemert). Drug courts combining treatment and rehabilitation are one promising system-based approach that may reduce reoffending among first-time drug offenders (Deschenes et al.).


The authors suggest that researchers consider the following questions in evaluating future delinquency prevention efforts.

  1. Did the design randomly assign selection into treatment? If not, the results may be biased because program volunteers may be less delinquent than nonvolunteers.
  2. Did the program target the right population? Its effectiveness may be age-graded or limited to certain groups, such as high-risk families (Karoly et al.).
  3. What outcome is examined? Since few youths are institutionalized, significant program effects on incarceration are unlikely. Other benefits, such as reduced arrest or improved graduation rates, may be more appropriate.
  4. How long is the follow-up observation period? Residential treatments, for example, may only prevent crime while youths are in residence (Mallar et al.).
  5. Was the program fully implemented, or did cost or logistical problems dilute the treatment?
  6. Do researchers have the ethical and legal licenses to intervene? "Predelinquents" have not yet committed crime and even apparently benign treatment could harm them. Conversely, if the treatment is beneficial, how can it be equitably withheld from low-risk children?


This review suggests that past disappointments have helped illuminate the limits of intervention. Relative to the numerous events occurring in the everyday lives of juveniles, treatments are generally weak and must be acknowledged as such. Future research must build on the demonstrated success of early childhood interventions and strong treatments for adolescents. Randomized designs (or at least matched comparisons) are absolutely critical for identifying what works in preventing juvenile offending. Although several excellent evaluations have been completed, many programs have yet to be carefully evaluated. Beyond prevention, one emerging area of research is in studying desistance or cessation from crime among young offenders. Desistance programs for young offenders mitigate the practical problems of false positive predictions and the ethical problems of subjecting nonoffenders to treatment (Uggen and Piliavin).

Delinquency prevention efforts grew more informed and less naively optimistic in the 1980s and 1990s. Researchers no longer assume that children are more malleable than "hardened" adult offenders. We know today that some well-meaning prevention efforts are ineffective and that it is difficult to identify potential offenders. Nevertheless, several prevention efforts have demonstrated their effectiveness, most notably nurse home visits (Olds, Hill, and Rumsey), high school graduation incentives (Greenwood et al.), family therapy with parental training (Sherman et al.), and programs that move families from low-income to middle-income neighborhoods (Duncan and Raudenbush).

Christopher Uggen

Melissa Thompson

See also Education and Crime; Family Relationships and Crime; Juvenile and Youth Gangs; Juvenile Justice: History and Philosophy; Juvenile Justice: Community Treatment; Juvenile Justice: Institutions; Juvenile Justice: Juvenile Court; Juveniles in the Adult System; Juvenile Status Offenders; Juvenile Violent Offenders; Police: Handling of Juveniles; Prediction of Crime and Recidivism; Schools and Crime.


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Prevention: Juveniles as Potential Offenders

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