Preventing Juvenile Delinquency: Early Intervention and Comprehensiveness as Critical Factors

By Alina Saminsky
2010, Vol. 2 No. 02 | pg. 1/3 |

Every single person living in the United States today is affected by juvenile . It affects parents, neighbors, teachers, and families. It affects the victims of crime, the perpetrators, and the bystanders. While delinquency rates have been decreasing, rates are still too high. There have been numerous programs that have attempted to lower this rate. Some are greatly successful, while many others have minimal or no impact. These programs are a waste of our resources. It is essential to determine the efficacy of different programs, and to see what works and what does not. In this way, the most successful programs can continue to be implemented and improved, while those that do not work are discontinued.

A number of different types of programs currently exist. Those that get involved with the delinquent after the occurrence of deviant behavior tend to be less succesful, since by that point antisocial habits are well developed. More effective programs are ones that intervene before the onset of delinquent behavior and prevent that behavior – prevention programs. By getting involved in children’s lives early, later crime can be effectively reduced (Zagar, Busch, and Hughes 282).

Prevention programs positively impact the general public because they stop this crime from happening in the first place. And there are even some prevention programs that are more successful than others. One aspect of exceptionally successful prevention programs is their comprehensive nature. Programs that are more holistic prevent future crime better because they deal with various aspects of a child’s life, not just a single one.

Two programs that have both of these features – early intervention and comprehensiveness - are home visitation programs and Head Start. Both of these programs have shown incredible results by targeting specific risk factors that lead to delinquent behavior. Once these risk factors are lessened, the problem behavior is much less likely to occur. In conclusion, juvenile justice prevention programs such as prenatal and early childhood nurse visitation programs and Head Start are largely successful at deterring crime for the children involved because they occur early in the child’s and because they focus on holistic and general aspects of the child’s life rather than focusing on crime itself.

Although there is really no way to completely predict which children will behave in delinquent and criminal ways in the future, there are a multitude of risk factors that have been shown to correlate with these behaviors. Fetal substance exposure, prenatal difficulties, an abusive and violent family are all risk factors related to poorer executive functioning. This weakness is then shown to lead to violent behavior (Zagar, Busch, and Hughes 281).

Other precursors to later frequent offending include poor child-rearing practices, poor parental supervision, criminal parents and siblings, low family income, large family size, poor housing, low intelligence, and low educational attainment (Zigler and Taussig 998). Physical and/or sexual abuse are specifically risk factors for homicidal behavior (Zagar, Busch, and Hughes 288). It has also been shown that early-onset antisocial behavior is associated with more severe outcomes compared with antisocial behavior that occurs later, and it is more likely to persist into adulthood (Olds et al. 66).

But these risk factors generally have a more complicated connection to problem behavior than simply increasing it directly. For example, low intelligence is considered a risk factor since children with below-average intelligence have a good chance of doing poorly in school. They may also have some sort of mental retardation. Both of these factors are correlated with physical abuse from the parents. Therefore, a child that has low intelligence and is also dealing with parental abuse must face two external events that preclude delinquent outcomes (Zigler and Taussig 999).

Socioeconomic status is another interesting risk factor. While in some studies it is directly associated with delinquent behavior, other studies have found that regardless of socioeconomic status, those children who were raised by distressed and unsupportive caregivers in unstable families had a greater chance of developing problem behavior than did children who had nurturing caregivers and grew up in supportive homes (Zigler and Taussig 999). Once again, it is the combination of factors and the interactions among them that best forecasts behavior.

So one risk factor alone will hardly predict any future behavior. What is important to look at is the co-occurrence of any number of risk factors. As the number of risk factors that a child possesses increases, that may predict with increasing accuracy if they will develop delinquent behavior (Zigler and Taussig 998). So what does that mean for prevention programs? It means that targeting risk factors is a great way to prevent crime. As more and more risk factors are diffused, the child has less and less reason to misbehave.

First, it is important to define what exactly early intervention is. A program is considered “early” if it occurs from before birth until early adolescence, and before the onset of delinquent behavior. This is a valuable time period because early childhood provides an unusual window of opportunity for young children to be uniquely receptive to enriching and supportive environments (Welsh and Farrington 872). Research has shown that the later the intervention occurs in the child’s life, the more therapeutic effort is required to return the child to a pattern of normal development (Zagar, Busch, and Hughes 286). If these programs are successful, they should alleviate some of the risk factors associated with delinquency and antisocial behavior and have lasting effects on socially competent behavior (Zigler and Taussig 999).

The results of high-quality early prevention programs can be tremendous. Looking specifically at preschool programs and parent educational services that improve school readiness, they help to set a pattern that prevents delinquency in later years. Children who participate are less likely to drop out and perform delinquent behavior because they have had better early school experiences and a stronger commitment to (Zigler 5). Early interventions also show increases in IQ scores and executive functioning, better elementary school achievement, and lower rates of aggression and other antisocial behavior (Zagar, Busch, and Hughes 291). These programs focus on the risk factors that were mentioned before, and that is why they actually reduce crime.

The best programs, in fact, deal with a variety of risk factors, including ones that come from the home. The best of the early intervention programs build on the strengths of families as well as children (Zigler 5). Adults that are offered practical and social support are in a better position to become effective parents than parents who are stressed and alienated. Early intervention programs offer a support system of parental involvement and education that works to improve family functioning and with that, child functioning (Zigler and Taussig 1003). This aspect of dealing with the family also makes these programs more comprehensive, which is another factor of good programs.

Anyway, the effects of successful experiences early in childhood build on each other to generate further success in school and in other social contexts (Zigler and Taussig 1002). An important point to make is that no child is inaccessible. In fact, the greater risk factors a child has, the more they will benefit from additional support such as a strong and encompassing program (Zagar, Busch, and Hughes 291).

Even in terms of cost these programs succeed. Various cost-benefit analyses show that early prevention programs provide value for money and can be a worthwhile investment of government resources compared with prison and other criminal justice responses (Welsh and Farrington 871). Especially since today the majority of money in crime prevention goes towards incarceration (Zagar, Busch, and Hughes 285). If that same money could be used for prevention programs instead, the results would be outstanding.

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