This Bulletin is part of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) Youth Development Series, which presents findings from the Program of Research on the Causes and Correlates of Delinquency. Teams at the University at Albany, State University of New York; the University of Colorado; and the University of Pittsburgh collaborated extensively in designing the studies. At study sites in Rochester, New York; Denver, Colorado; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the three research teams have interviewed 4,000 participants at regular intervals for a decade, recording their lives in detail. Findings to date indicate that preventing delinquency requires accurate identification of the risk factors that increase the likelihood of delinquent behavior and the protective factors that enhance positive adolescent development.

This Bulletin examines the co-occurrence or overlap of serious delinquency with drug use, problems in school, and mental health problems. Many youth who are seriously delinquent also experience difficulty in other areas of life. However, with the exception of the co-occurrence of drug use and delinquency, little is known about the overlap of these problem behaviors in general populations. Do most youth who commit serious delinquent acts have school and mental health problems? Are most youth who have school or mental health problems also seriously delinquent?

Some studies of youth who have been incarcerated or arrested suggest that the overlap of these problems is substantial (see references in Huizinga and JakobChien, 1998). However, not all youth involved in illegal behaviors are arrested or come in contact with the juvenile justice system. Understanding the extent of overlap of these problem behaviors requires studies based on representative samples drawn from complete populations of youth, where the examination of overlap is not limited to particular subgroups defined by official delinquency, school issues, or mental health status. However, there are only a few studies of national or community samples that examine these issues.1

Answers to the questions posed above are important because a large overlap may indicate general risk factors that prevention and intervention initiatives should address. On the other hand, a small overlap may indicate that prevention and intervention initiatives should be more tailored to risk factors related to the specific problem behaviors of individual youth.

Many youth are only intermittently involved in serious delinquency, violence, or gang membership, and involvement often lasts only a single year during adolescence.2 For this reason, of greater concern are youth who have a more sustained involvement in delinquency, whose involvement is often considered more problematic and serious. Thus, this Bulletin is based on research that focuses on persistent serious delinquency and persistent school and mental health problems lasting 2 years or more.

One of the few current research projects that has adequate information to allow an examination of the co-occurrence of persistent problem behaviors in general populations is OJJDP’s Program of Research on the Causes and Correlates of Delinquency. The data presented in this Bulletin come from the first 3 years of this project. The Program of Research involves the Denver Youth Survey, the Pittsburgh Youth Study, and the Rochester Youth Development Study. These studies use prospective longitudinal designs, which allow examination of developmental processes over the life course. The projects involved more than 4,000 inner-city children and youth who, at the beginning of the research (1987–88), ranged in age from 7 to 15 years. Researchers interviewed these children and one parent of each child in private settings at regular intervals.

The selection of youth varied from study to study. The Denver Youth Survey sample consists of 1,527 youth (806 boys and 721 girls) who were ages 7, 9, 11, 13, and 15 in 1987. These respondents came from the more than 20,000 households randomly drawn from high-risk neighborhoods in Denver, CO. The Pittsburgh Youth Study began by randomly sampling boys who were in the first, fourth, and seventh grades in public schools in Pittsburgh, PA, in 1987. Through interviews with each boy, his parent, and his teacher, researchers selected the 30 percent of these boys who had the most disruptive behavior. The final Pittsburgh sample consists of 1,517 boys, including the 30 percent who were the most disruptive; the remainder were randomly selected. The Rochester Youth Development Study sample consists of 1,000 randomly selected students who were in the seventh and eighth grades in public schools in Rochester, NY, in the spring semester of the 1988 school year.

This Bulletin summarizes the findings of these studies to give a picture of the co-occurrence of persistent serious delinquency with persistent drug use, problems in school, mental health problems, and combinations of these problems. For the purposes of this Bulletin, persistent serious delinquency is defined as involvement as an offender in serious assault or serious property offenses in at least 2 of the 3 years examined. To avoid repetition, the use of the term “persistent” is often omitted, but it applies to all the behaviors discussed. Drug problems include the use of marijuana, inhalants, cocaine or crack, heroin, angel dust (PCP), psychedelics, amphetamines, tranquilizers, or barbiturates. School problems were defined as having below-average grades (D or F) or having dropped out of school. Mental health problems were indicated if the person was in the top 10 percent of the distribution of internalizing or externalizing symptoms3 of a subset of items from the Child Behavior Checklist (Achenbach and Edelbrock, 1982). In all cases, persistent problems were problems that occurred in at least 2 of the 3 years examined.

1 See, for example, Elliott and Huizinga, 1989; Elliott, Huizinga, and Menard, 1989; Huizinga, Loeber, and Thornberry, 1993.

2 Elliott, Huizinga, and Morse, 1986; Huizinga, Esbensen, and Weiher, 1994; Thornberry et al., 1993; Esbensen and Huizinga, 1993.

3 These terms represent broad groupings of behavioral problems—internalizing refers to personality or emotional problems and externalizing refers to behavioral problems such as hyperactivity and aggression.

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Co-occurrence of Delinquency and Other Problem Behaviors Juvenile Justice Bulletin November 2000