Why Study Risk Factors?

Several juvenile justice researchers have linked risk factors to delinquency (Hawkins et al., 1998; Lipsey and Derzon, 1998), and many have also noted a multiplicative effect if several risk factors are present. Herrenkohl and colleagues (2000) report that a 10-year-old exposed to six or more risk factors is 10 times as likely to commit a violent act by age 18 as a 10-year-old exposed to only one risk factor.

Similarly, the age range or developmental period during which a youth is exposed to a specific risk factor is important to individuals working to tailor prevention programs to specific factors. Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General (2001 (chapter 4)) elaborates:

Violence prevention and intervention efforts hinge on identifying risk and protective factors and determining when in the course of development they emerge. To be effective, such efforts must be appropriate to a youth's stage of development. A program that is effective in childhood may be ineffective in adolescence and vice versa. Moreover, the risk and protective factors targeted by violence prevention may be different from those targeted by intervention programs which are designed to prevent the recurrence of violence.

The study of risk factors, therefore, is critical to the enhancement of prevention programs that frequently have limited staffing and funding. Identifying which risk factors may cause delinquency for particular sets of youth at specific stages of their development may help programs target their efforts in a more efficient and cost-effective manner. The table, which was adapted from a report by the Office of the Surgeon General, categorizes risk factors by age of onset of delinquency and identifies corresponding protective factors.

Risk and Protective Factors, by Domain

Risk Factor

Early Onset (ages 6-11) Late Onset (ages 12-14) Protective Factor*
General offenses Substance use
Being male
Problem (antisocial)   behavior
Exposure to television
Medical, physical   problems
Low IQ
Antisocial attitudes,   beliefs
General offenses
Difficulty   concentrating**
Risk taking
Being male
Physical violence
Antisocial attitudes,   beliefs
Crimes against persons
Problem (antisocial)   behavior
Low IQ
Substance use
Intolerant attitude toward
High IQ
Being female
Positive social orientation
Perceived sanctions for
Low socioeconomic
Antisocial parents
Poor parent-child   relationship
Harsh, lax, or inconsistent
Broken home
Separation from parents
Other conditions
Abusive parents
Poor parent-child   relationship
Harsh or lax discipline
Poor monitoring,   supervision
Low parental   involvement
Antisocial parents
Broken home
Low socioeconomic
Abusive parents
Family conflict**
Warm, supportive
  relationships with
  parents or other adults
Parents' positive
  evaluation of peers
Parental monitoring
Poor attitude, performance Poor attitude,   performance
Academic failure
Commitment to school
Recognition for
  involvement in
  conventional activities
Peer group
Weak social ties
Antisocial peers
Weak social ties
Antisocial, delinquent   peers
Gang membership
Friends who engage in   conventional behavior
  Neighborhood crime,   drugs
Neighborhood   disorganization
* Age of onset not known.
** Males only.

Source: Adapted from Office of the Surgeon General, 2001.

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Risk Factors for Delinquency: An Overview Michael Shader