Risk Factors
- Fact Sheet -

The research conducted over the past number of years related to the prevention of  juvenile crime, alcohol and drug abuse and how best to intervene to predict and ameliorate the life choices of many young and vulnerable members of the population, has concluded that the prevention of behaviour problems can be achieved provided that the risk factors that are most strongly related to crime in later life can be identified with a degree of certainty. 

The fact that crime is decreasing during a period when more people are experiencing disadvantage may seem to contradict the research evidence. It is probably safe to theorize, however, that social and economic factors influence crime trends over the longer term while other factors such as changes in the percentage of young males in the population may mask the effect over the short term. Given the increased numbers of young people who will be exposed to serious disadvantage in the coming years, it makes sense that efforts to address social and economic problems take priority. Conversely, because amendments to young offender legislation cannot address factors most highly correlated to youth crime, it is unreasonable to expect that these changes will have any significant impact on youth crime rates. 

What are Risk Factors ?

The National Crime Prevention Council in their report entitled "Promoting Positive Outcomes in Youth Twelve to Eighteen
Years of Age" (1997) suggested that "risk factors" are experiences in a young person's life that increase the chances of a youth being victimized or of developing one or more behaviour problems. Such problems include self-harming behaviours such as alcohol and other drug abuse, suicide, criminal behaviour directed towards other persons or property. The more risk factors that are present the greater the chances of behaviour problems. They go on to suggest that risk factors can be found in a youth's family life, school experiences, community and peer relationships. 

The main risk factors can be grouped into three broad areas: risk factors present in the child or young person, risk factors
present in the family and risk factors in the environment or wider community. Broadly defined, risk factors for the National Crime Prevention Council included such factors as:

* difficulty "personality" or temperament 
* problems caused by brain diseases or disorders 
* family violence, including verbal and emotional abuse and
* childhood traumas such as physical and sexual abuse 
* poor or ineffective parental supervisory and discipline skills 
* parental alcoholism or drug addiction 
* Failing in school truancy and other school problems 
* Low socio-economic status, living in poverty. 

None of these factors can, in itself, be indicative of negative developments at a later stage in life. Only when several factors co-exist is the risk of serious criminality and health and welfare problems increased. 

Concern with Transition to Adulthood

If one considers that ultimately we are concerned with the healthy development of adolescents in transition to adulthood, we must be concerned with the issues that impede or impact on such transitions. Transition to adulthood includes simultaneous transitions across several domains including post-secondary education or other work preparation training, labour force participation (or unemployment) independent living, marriage or cohabitation, and community living. Transition success is affected by many factors including personal characteristics, gender, family influences, exposure to role models, economic status, cultural influences, and the economic viability of the community in which the person functions. We must also be mindful of the
fact that adolescence occurs in a context with such factors as race, ethnicity, cultural customs, language, social views and practices, sexual orientation and physical or learning disabilities all combining to make the transition experiences of some adolescents very different from others. 

Moving from "Risk" to "Resiliency" 

While there has been a fair amount of work done on identifying risk factors that, if present, may increase the likelihood of a young person's involvement in crime or other negative behaviour problems, there has also been some work done on the development of programs that build on the enhancement of protective factors which may reduce the effects of exposure to risk factors and thus lower the chances a youth will develop serious anti-social or other behaviour problems or become a victim.. 

Protective factors may also be broadly grouped into three categories: 

(1) individual characteristics (i.e. high IQ, high level of 
     resilience and flexibility and a positive social attitude); 

(2) social bonds ( notably warm, supportive and affective
     relationships with parents and other adults); and 

(3) social support including positive social skills and socially
     acceptable pattern of behavioural norms.

The National Crime Prevention Council further articulated such protection factors as including but not limited to: 

* possession of problem-solving, life and communication
* sociability 
* resilient personality or temperament 
* a sense of belonging 
* secure attachments to positive parent(s) or family 
* positive relations with "pro social" peers 
* access to other caring and supportive adults 
* appropriate discipline, limit-setting and structure from
* opportunities to experience success and build self esteem. 

In the context of transitions from adolescence to healthy adulthood, it is important to consider the notion of "resilience" as defined by the National Crime Prevention Council (1997) as a young person's ability to cope in the presence of major stress or risk factors. They go on to suggest that resilience is a source of strength in young people created or nurtured by caring and effective parents or other adult caregivers, positive learning environments in schools and access to community resources. 

What is the value of having an assessment to identify potential risks and needs of young offenders ? 

* by objectively identifying young persons who pose a higher
    risk of re-offending and the program interventions that are

* assessments allow for a potentially more efficient and
    effective use of resources 

* more objective and consistent decision making 

* establishing a baseline for monitoring a young offender's

* periodic reassessment of rehabilitative effectiveness 

* establishment of data base on the need for different types of
    program interventions 

How Do We Match Risks with Needs of Young Offenders?

Instruments have been developed by a group of Canadian researchers to assess the risk of re-offending based on ratings of a number of criminogenic factors: 

* age of first offence 
* number of prior convictions 
* poor school performance 
* anti-social peer group 
* substance abuse 
* parenting practices and other such variables 

From these assessed risks, the young person can be assigned to different levels of intensity of
community supervision or custody. 

The criminogenic factors identified are either static meaning that they are unchangeable such as the number of prior convictions or dynamic meaning that they can vary from person to person such as the involvement with drugs or substance abuse. It is the dynamic factors which form the needs for these assessment tools. By targeting specific factors or needs that are related to offending behaviour, rehabilitative interventions can be identified for each case (i.e. substance abuse counselling, parent counselling, intensive school program etc.). Assuming such programs are available and implemented, the risk of re-offending can be reduced. 

Effectiveness of Rehabilitation Measures Depends on Program Implementation Factors: 

Appropriate targeting of program intervention to address the criminogenic factors associated with
offending (risk-needs assessment) 

* use of appropriate modes of intervention based on social
    learning principles 
* a multiplicity of available interventions to address differing
    individual needs 
* consistent application of interventions to ensure program
* quality assurance of program design and delivery including
    training and recruiting appropriate staff 
* strong theoretical base or mission for the program 

Research on recidivism has found that the first several months after release from custody is the period in which there is the highest amount of recidivism and if programs can be designed to promote successful community re-entry with follow-up in a transitional community based program, there is substantial increases realized in reducing recidivism and enhancing success. 

We should be careful not to suggest that a program has not been successful if a young person re-offends.  While rehabilitative programs are designed with a goal of reducing recidivism, it is essential that other forms of program success are included in the mix and not totally rely on measures of recidivism to determine success.

For most young people, the offending behaviour is part of growing up, of testing the limits, of taking risks, of asserting their independence. It may also be an indication of boredom and the absence of anything useful or meaningful to do. It may be a reflection of that awkward stage of life where one feels grown up but not able to participate fully in the world of adults.  Generally, the offenses that they commit are relatively minor and decrease in frequency as they grow older, mature and find a way to participate in and contribute to society. 

We can reduce occasional or temporary offending by young people by helping them deal with the stress associated with the turbulence of adolescence and finding ways of involving young people in useful and meaningful activities. Educational and recreational activities to which all have equal access and which are designed on the basis of the varied needs and interests of young people are important. Access to social services can help some young people and their families deal with problems which may underlie the offending behaviour. Given what we know about the correlation between poverty, mental health and opportunities, the economic security of young people and their families should also be a priority. These measures are all primary prevention strategies - ways of creating healthier and ultimately safer communities for all Canadians. 

Research shows that involving low-risk, low-need youths in correctional programs may actually increase their chances of
re-offending. Our best preventive strategy may be to restrain the use of the youth justice system, to do less criminal justice processing not more, and to let parents and community resources outside of the justice system deal with the young person. 

We know that a small group of young offenders persist in their criminal behaviour into adulthood. Research suggests that early intervention targeted at socially and economically disadvantaged youth can reduce the likelihood of long-term criminal activity. 

Restorative Justice Approach

What Works to Prevent Crime

   Myths About Youth Crime In Canada

Victims of Youth Crime

* Project made possible through a grant by Department of 
  Justice Canada and Public Legal Education Information
  Service New Brunswick - Youth Justice Renewal Tool Kit