Program of Research on the Causes and Correlates of Delinquency

In an effort to learn more about the causes of juvenile delinquency, OJJDP is sponsoring the Program of Research on the Causes and Correlates of Delinquency. Past research indicates that many variables correlate with delinquency and that many factors tend to increase the risk of later delinquent behavior. Among these risk factors are birth trauma, child abuse and neglect, ineffective pa-rental discipline, family disruptions, conduct disorder and hyperactivity in children, school failure, learning disabilities, negative peer influences, limited employment opportunities, inadequate housing, and residence in high-crime neighborhoods. So far, research supports the conclusion that no single cause accounts for all delinquency and that no single pathway leads to a life of crime. To date, however, research has not clearly identified all the pathways that lead to delinquency, nor has it been able to analyze the factors that cause individuals to take different paths.

Social scientists and policymakers agree that the best way to gain information on the causes of delinquency is through longitudinal studies. Because longitudinal studies involve repeated contacts with the same individuals over an extended period of time, they permit researchers to study patterns of development, to sort out which factors precede changes in offending, to predict such changes, and to do so independently of other factors. They also enable researchers to examine the differential impact of risk factors at different stages of a child’s development. In brief, longitudinal studies make it possible to identify various pathways to delinquency, each with unique causal factors that, like delinquency itself, may change with time. This information is needed to develop truly effective intervention programs.

The Program of Research on the Causes and Correlates of Delinquency is an example of OJJDP’s support of long-term research in a variety of fields. Initiated in 1986, the Causes and Correlates program includes three closely coordinated longitudinal projects: the Pittsburgh Youth Study, directed by Dr. Rolf Loeber at the University of Pittsburgh; the Rochester Youth Development Study, directed by Dr. Terence P. Thornberry at the University at Albany, State University of New York; and the Denver Youth Survey, directed by Dr. David Huizinga at the University of Colorado. The Causes and Correlates program represents a milestone in criminological research because it constitutes the largest shared-measurement approach ever achieved in delinquency research. From the beginning, the three research teams have worked together with similar measurement techniques, thus enhancing their ability to generalize their findings.

While each of the three projects has unique features, they share several key elements:

  • All three are longitudinal investigations that involve repeated contacts with the same juveniles over a substantial portion of their developmental years.

  • In each study, researchers have conducted face-to-face interviews with adolescents in a private setting. By using self-report data rather than juvenile justice records, researchers have been able to come much closer to measuring actual delinquent behaviors and ascertaining the age at onset of delinquent careers.

  • Multiple perspectives on each child’s development and behavior are obtained through interviews with the child’s primary caretaker and teachers and from official school, police, and court records.

  • Participants are interviewed at regular and frequent intervals (6 or 12 months).

  • Sample retention has been excellent. As of 1997, at least 84 percent of the participants had been retained at each site, and the average retention rate across all interview periods was 90 percent.

  • The three sites have collaborated to use a common measurement package, collecting data on a wide range of variables that make possible cross-site comparisons of similarities and differences.

Each project has disseminated the results of its research through a broad range of publications, reports, and presentations. In 1997, OJJDP initiated the Youth Development Series of Bulletins to present findings from the Causes and Correlates program. In addition to the present Bulletin, five other Bulletins have been published in the Youth Development Series: Epidemiology of Serious Violence, Gang Members and Delinquent Behavior, In the Wake of Childhood Maltreatment, Developmental Pathways in Boys’ Disruptive and Delinquent Behavior, and Family Disruption and Delinquency.

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Teenage Fatherhood and Delinquent Behavior Juvenile Justice Bulletin   ·  January 2000