The juvenile justice field has spent much time and energy attempting to understand the causes of delinquency. Different theoretical models describe the relationship between variables and outcomes. Researchers have concluded that there is no single path to delinquency and note that the presence of several risk factors often increases a youth's chance of offending. Studies also point to the interaction of risk factors, the multiplicative effect when several risk factors are present, and how certain protective factors may work to offset risk factors.
In recent years, the juvenile justice field has adopted an approach from the public health arena in an attempt to understand the causes of delinquency and work toward its prevention (Farrington, 2000; Moore, 1995). For example, the medical community's efforts to prevent cancer and heart disease have successfully targeted risk factors (Farrington, 2000). To evaluate a patient's risk of suffering a heart attack, a doctor commonly asks for the patient's medical history, family history, diet, weight, and exercise level because each of these variables has an effect on the patient's cardiac health. After this risk assessment, the doctor may suggest ways for the patient to reduce his or her risk factors. Similarly, if a youth possesses certain risk factors, research indicates that these factors will increase his or her chance of becoming a delinquent. A risk assessment may aid in determining the type of intervention that will best suit the youth's needs and decrease his or her risk of offending. Farrington (2000) calls this recent movement toward the public health model the "risk factor paradigm," the basic idea of which is to "identify the key risk factors for offending and tool prevention methods designed to counteract them" (Farrington, 2000:1).
Although much of the research on risk factors that youth face has focused on predicting serious and violent offenses, risk factors are relevant to all levels of delinquency. This article defines risk factors, explains why they are important, and briefly discusses some of the major risk factors linked to delinquency and violence.