Preventing Juvenile Delinquency: Early Intervention and Comprehensiveness as Critical Factors

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

Every single person living in the United States today is affected by juvenile crime. 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.

By now it is clear that programs that target youth early in their lives are generally more successful than programs with a later onset. This is one important aspect of good programs. Another facet that predicts success is how well a particular program addresses various aspects of the child’s life. Some programs only focus on a child’s schoolwork and academic achievement. Other programs focus solely on the parents. But the programs that seem to work the best are ones that incorporate many different aspects of a child’s life into their curriculum.

One particular study used a review-of-reviews approach to identify general principles of effective prevention programs that might transcend specific content areas (Nation et al. 450). This meta-analysis found that one of these principles is comprehensiveness. The study defines comprehensive as “providing an array of interventions to address the salient precursors or mediators of the target problem” (Nation et al. 451).

Two important factors of comprehensive programming are multiple interventions and multiple settings (Nation et al. 451). The idea of multiple interventions and multiple settings relates to Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems theory. This theory states that there are a multitude of systems surrounding a child that all influence the development of the child. Therefore it is not enough to work with just one of the systems. True progress can only be made when many of the systems are involved.

This Ecological Systems theory influenced another article to come up with an ecological approach to enrich child development by trying to promote social competence in the various systems that children encounter. This approach is based on the assumption that the most proximal influence on children is the family, however, both children and families are interactive members of a larger system of social institutions (Zigler and Taussig 997). So by targeting these various systems as opposed to just one or a few of them, a program is able to more fully aide in the appropriate development of a child. Because the risk factors associated with delinquent behavior are based in many different systems, comprehensive prevention approaches are bound to be more effective than those of more narrow range (Zigler and Taussig 1004).

One prevention program stands out among the sea of others. It is implemented early on in a child’s life, and it takes a holistic approach in order to deal with the many aspects of the child’s life. It is also one of the most famous early prevention programs out there. Head Start began as part of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 gave enormous to the Office of Economic Opportunities, who then founded the program (Zigler and Muenchow 2). Sargent Shriver, the initial creator, states that he had the idea for Head Start after a revelation that almost half the people living in poverty were children (Zigler and Muenchow 3).

Although Head Start was roughly based on some other educational experiments, it was a very unique undertaking – truly the first of its kind. The program provides comprehensive education, health services, nutritional guidance, parental involvement, and social services to low-income children and their families (Zigler and Muenchow 5). Almost 50 years later, Head Start has enrolled over 22 million children in its history (Mills 4). It has been called “the best investment this country has ever made in its young children” (Mills 165).

The program, which is based on income to determine eligible families, aims to improve the intellectual capacity and school performance of poor children (Zigler and Muenchow 4). The ultimate goal is to prepare kids to enter school – to give underprivileged kids a “head start” (Mills 304). So in the beginning, juvenile delinquency was nowhere in the picture. In fact, the goals spanned no later than the first few years of school. No one expected the huge impact that the Head Start program would have on its participants.

In fact, the main long-term impact is indeed reducing school failure (Mills 169). But the side effects have been unexpected and tremendous. Head Start has been shown to improve intelligence, academic readiness and achievement, self-esteem, social behavior, and physical health (Mills 165). In addition, results are also highly favorable for impacts on future government assistance, employment, income, substance abuse, and family stability.

There is evidence that suggests that these programs not only pay back their costs but also earn a profit for the government and taxpayers in terms of deflecting costs of social assistance and judicial costs, and adding to tax revenue. And finally, a meta-review of programs concludes that preschool intellectual enrichment is effective in ultimately preventing delinquency (Welsh and Farrington 873). Again, this is most likely due to the curbing of early risk factors that set children up for future success.

Another preschool program, the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project, was similar to the Head Start program. It was a short-term experiment however, and therefore was more concentrated and had more funding. But the basis of the program was very similar to Head Start. The Perry Preschool Project was shown to be very effective in decreasing arrest rates, and increasing achievement and success in school (Zagar, Busch, and Hughes 298).

Children who participated in the project also used less special education services, relied less on public assistance in the future, had better jobs and more stable employment, showed increased home ownership, and had less children out of wedlock (Zagar, Busch, and Hughes 301). It is clear that programs such as Head Start do much more than just prepare kids for school. Their effects cover various areas of children’s lives, and are visible many years later.

Another highly successful type of program, that also combines early intervention with comprehensive care, is home visitation. There are many different types of home visitation programs, but most of them share a few common factors. The premise of this program is that nurses or trained professionals meet with usually low-income and/or high-risk mothers. Often times these women are teen mothers. The professionals meet with them throughout their pregnancy and then until the child is around 24 months of age.

The general goal of these visits is to provide information and support to the mother. More specifically, the nurses aim to reduce environmental hazards, instruct mothers about nutrition for themselves and for their infants, effectively correct behavior, and reduce substance abuse by the mother (Zagar, Busch, and Hughes 297). Yet before discussing the outcomes of home visiting, it is important to understand just how crucial parenting is to the healthy development of the child.

Good parenting provides children with a variety of different skills for them to use for the rest of their lives. Two of these important skills are impulse regulation and empathy. When these skills are lacking, the risk for adolescent criminal behavior increases. Another valuable skill that parents generally instill in their children is the ability to regulate their emotions, which the lack of can also predict future delinquency (Olds et al. 70).

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