In recent years, criminologists have begun to develop theories that address why and how juvenile delinquents may become adult criminal offenders. Referred to as integrated or developmental theories, this school of thought tends to focus on risk and protective factors and generally utilizes longitudinal studies to develop explanations for why some young people desist from offending and others do not. Most integrated theories also synthesize elements from various other theories.
One of the earliest studies of this type was conducted by Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck of Harvard University. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Gluecks carried out a series of longitudinal studies with samples of known juvenile delinquents using interviews and analyzing secondary sources of data. Comparing 500 delinquents with 500 nondelinquents, the Gluecks found that the most significant factor related to persistent offending was early involvement. Additionally, the most important factor relevant to a youth’s likelihood of offending was the family, with children raised in large families, single-parent families, and those with limited funds or limited educational access being most at risk.
Decades later, John Laub and Robert Sampson reanalyzed the Gluecks’ data. In a book called Crime in the Making: Pathways and Turning Points Through Life that was published in 1993, Sampson and Laub generally affirmed the Gluecks’ findings. They then added to the field by developing what they called age-graded theory, which proposes that there are two critical life-turning points that enable young delinquents to desist offending: career and marriage. Further, Sampson and Laub maintained that people with the most social capital, or positive community and individual connections, were least likely to be long-term offenders.
The Cambridge Youth Study–longitudinal research involving 411 boys from London who were all born in 1953–utilized self-reports, interviews, and other methods to identify life-course offending. The study identified several factors that were most related to desistance. Specifically, individuals with nondeviant families, shy individuals, persons with fewer friends at age eight, and those with a positive relationship with their mothers were least likely to persist as offenders.
Using longitudinal data, Rolf Loeber and associates developed a theory that identified three specific pathways from juvenile to adult crime: the authority-conflict pathway, the covert pathway, and the overt pathway. According to these researchers, stubborn behavior among young children becomes defiance or disobedience as adults in the first pathway. In the second pathway, minor acts of deviance–lying and shoplifting, for instance–lead to more severe acts of property crime. The overt pathway is the one most associated with violent behavior. Bullying, for example, is seen as leading to other forms of physical altercations.
Delinquent trajectories, a theory proposed by Terrie Moffitt, proposes that two types of offenders may be distinguished. Adolescent limited (AL) offenders generally engage in minor acts of deviance, but age out of such behavior when their peer group no longer is the most influential in their lives. Moffitt asserts that violence among youth in inner cities serves several important functions for this group, as it helps with impression management and the achievement of status (for young males, in particular), it helps young people acquire power, and it allows them to defy authority and command respect. Life-course persistent (LP) offenders persist in their criminal behavior due to a combination of family dysfunction and neurological problems. They often start with a small, sometimes undiagnosed, neuro-psychological deficit such as a learning disability or behavioral disorder that goes unaddressed. Many LP offenders also persist because they fall into “snares” such as drug use or lack of education.
In 1998, Samples and Aber identified the most critical developmental task related to violence prevention at each of four developmental stages. At each stage, numerous social variables affect a child’s successes. In early childhood (ages 2-5), the most essential developmental task is the development of self-regulation. The quality of caretaking influence a child’s ability to self-regulate, but research confirms that small classes in school also make a big difference in this regard. During middle childhood (ages 6-11), the critical developmental tasks are the development of normative beliefs about aggression and the development of interpersonal negotiation strategies. Young people are aided in developing these skills when they are involved in family-like settings in which the individual can be an active participant and receive the acceptance and attention he or she needs. In early adolescence (ages 12-14), the primary developmental task is the development of prosocial peer groups. Samples and Aber found that most school-based violence prevention programs are still focused on the earlier developmental need and, therefore, on changing attitudes, rather than assisting young people with developing peer groups.
Many integrated or developmental theories focus on identifying risk and protective factors for young people. Risk factors are those individual, family, community, and other factors that make offending more likely, whereas protective factors are those factors that increase the likelihood of prosocial outcomes. Schools can either enhance risk factors or create climates that are protective. Research in the mid-1990s identified several characteristics of schools that help protect against crime and violence–namely, these schools help students develop a sense of caring relationships, encourage involvement and experiential learning, hold students to high expectations, and assist with remedial or corrective programs when needed.
Similarly, research on effective violence-prevention programs has identified several critical elements. Good programs must offer real challenges and targeted programs. That is, they must present information and scenarios relevant to the specific community. Given that power and endurance are highly valued by inner-city males, for example, good programs must incorporate ways to develop and demonstrate status and accomplishments. Development of group identity and organizational traditions is also essential, as is the opportunity to develop autonomy within a set of clear rules. Good programs feature family-like environments in which individuals are honored and valued, and the adults involved clearly show their commitment and personal interest.
- Elliott, D., Hamburg, B., & Williams, K. (Eds.). (1998). Violence in American schools: A new perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Finley, L. (Ed.). (2007). Encyclopedia of juvenile violence. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
- Loeber, R., Farrington, D., Stouthamer-Loeber, M., Moffit, T., & Caspi, A. (1998). The development of male offending: Key findings from the Pittsburgh Youth Study. Studies in Crime and Crime Prevention, 3, 197-247.
- Moffit, T. (1993). “Life-course persistent” and “adolescent limited” antisocial behavior: A developmental taxonomy. Psychological Review, 100, 674-701.
- Sampson, R., & Loeb, J. (1983). Crime in the making: Pathways and turning points through life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Sexton-Radek, K. (Ed.). (2005). Violence in schools: Issues, consequences, andexpressions. Westport, CT: Praeger.