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You are here: Home Publications and media Speeches Conference London September 2005 3. Persisters and desisters - two types of youth offender

3. Persisters and desisters - two types of youth offender

Trial and Treatment of Youth Offenders: Human Rights at the Coalface of Youth Justice

1. Introduction | 2. The need for a principled approach | 3. Persisters and desisters - two types of youth offender | 4. Trial and treatment in a principled youth justice system | 5. Conclusion


(a) Introduction: Who are Persisters and Desisters?
(b) Key Risk Factors for Persisters and Desisters

(i) Key Risk Factors for Desisters or "Adolescent-Limited" Offenders
(ii) Key Risk Factors for Persisters or Early Onset Offenders

(c) Policy Implications of Research into Persisters and Desisters

(i) Policy Implications for Dealing with Desisters
(ii) Policy Implications for Dealing with Persisters

(a) Introduction: Who are Persisters and Desisters?

Significant research has been carried out into the reasons why young people offend to ensure that responses to offending are appropriate and effective for the well-being of children and young people. This research has revealed that there are two distinct types of young offender, susceptible to different risks and having different needs, and consequently, a principled approach requires different responses for these two groups. Further, this research bears directly on both the trial and treatment of young offenders.

A quarter of young men will commit at least one offence during their formative years but most of these will desist from crime and go on to settle into law-abiding lifestyles by their mid-twenties, having committed only a few trivial crimes. However, in New Zealand and internationally 15%-20% of youth offenders will persist and go on to become "life course" offenders - these "Persisters" are responsible for a large proportion of crime.[22] Thus, there are two groups - those that persist with crime and those that desist from it.

"Desisters" commit at least one crime, but usually start offending after 13 years of age and tend to stop or age out of offending by age 24 to 28.[23]

In contrast, "Persisters" start early, before age 14 and as early as 10 years of age,[24] offend at high rates – around 40% to 60% of youth offending in New Zealand - and continue offending into adulthood. The statistics in NZ make sobering reading:

  • 85% are male.
  • 70-80% have a drug and/or alcohol problem, and a significant number are drug dependent/addicted.
  • 70% are not engaged with school - most are not even enrolled at a secondary school. Non-enrolment, rather than truancy, is the problem.
  • Most experience family dysfunction and disadvantage; and most lack positive male role models.
  • Many have some form of psychological disorder, and display little remorse, let alone any victim empathy
  • At least 50% are Māori[25] and in some Youth Courts, in areas of high Māori population, the Māori appearance rate is 90%. This figure is a particular challenge to the youth justice system, and to all working with young offenders.
  • Many have a history of abuse and neglect, and previous involvement with Child, Youth and Family Services.[26]

These characteristics are common to the small group of serious young offenders who bedevil all Western democracies. Both groups commit serious offences, but the Persisters tend to commit more of them, partly because they are committing crime at such a high rate over a long period. Although some research has suggested that the two groups are not entirely clear cut,[27] persistent young offenders are a difficult and worrying group that requires identification and intervention as early as the preschool years.

(b) Key Risk Factors for Persisters and Desisters

The most rigorous research available shows that the following risk factors are the most powerful causes of offending and are consequently the key targets for programmes aimed at reducing offending.

(i) Key Risk Factors for Desisters or "Adolescent-Limited" Offenders

Young people in the Desister group make few Court appearances and have fewer risk factors. Also called "adolescent limited" offenders,[28] they are particularly at risk from substance abuse and antisocial peers, and are considered by some to be the priority for intervention. The following list gives an order of priority for addressing risks with this group:[29]

  • Mixing with antisocial peers;
  • Substance abuse;
  • Family problems - poor parental monitoring, negative parent-child relationships;
  • Poor performance and attendance at school, negative feelings about school;
  • Others as per the Persisters list below.

(ii) Key Risk Factors for Persisters or Early Onset Offenders

Persisters tend to come from multi-problem backgrounds, and are the most likely of all offenders to keep offending into adulthood. Also known as "Early Onset" offenders these youths are usually seekers of immediate gratification and give no thought to the consequences of their actions. Effective interventions with this group must tackle multiple identified risk factors.

Risk factors in order of the highest to lowest priority for Persisters are:[30]

  • Having few social ties (being low in popularity, and engaging in few social activities);
  • Mixing with antisocial peers;
  • Having family problems, particularly poor parental monitoring of children and negative parent-child relationships;
  • Experiencing barriers to treatment, whether low motivation to change, or practical problems such as difficulty in attending appointments due to lack of transport and work hours;
  • Showing poor self-management, including impulsive behaviour, poor thinking skills, poor social/interpersonal skills;
  • Showing aggressiveness (both verbal and physical, against people and objects) and anger;
  • Performing and attending poorly at school, lacking positive involvement in and feelings about school;
  • Lacking vocational skills and a job (for older offenders);
  • Demonstrating antisocial attitudes that are supportive of crime, theft, drug taking, violence, truancy and unemployment;
  • Abusing drugs and alcohol;
  • Living in a neighbourhood that is poor, disorganised, with high rates of crime and violence, in overcrowded and/or frequently changing living conditions;
  • Lacking cultural pride and positive cultural identity.

Persistent offenders tend to show the most severe and greatest numbers of risk factors from a relatively early age. As Scott (1999)[31] notes, Desisters and Persisters are at separate ends of a continuum of offending defined primarily by the number of risk factors the young person has experienced.

(c) Policy Implications of Research into Persisters and Desisters

(i) Policy Implications for Dealing with Desisters

Desisters require a low-key, measured approach that is nevertheless graduated to deal with escalations in offending. Interventions must emphasise accountability, insist on reparation and restitution and make the young person aware of the impact of their offending.[32] It is important that responses do not confirm the young person as a "criminal" because research shows they are likely to find their way back to a law-abiding lifestyle and are more likely to do so if kept away from the criminal justice system. Responses such as warnings and diversion are particularly useful for this group.

(ii) Policy Implications for Dealing with Persisters

Early identification of Persisters is vital as is information sharing between education, health, Police and welfare agencies to identify and deal with this group. Research shows that the greatest change in expected re-offending rates for Persisters was achieved through:

  • Preparation for employment (35% decrease)
  • Behaviour contract (25% decrease)
  • Institutional training (15% decrease)
  • Court/Probation (10% decrease)
  • Offender Counselling (8% decrease)
  • Family Counselling (No change)
  • Deterrent Sentencing (25% increase).[33]

Also of value was a Family Group Conference preceded by full assessments such as risk and needs assessments, psychological, medical, educational and cultural assessments and comprehensive plans or supervision orders. Multi-systemic therapy, a licensed and franchised intensive community-based intervention programme for serious young offenders, a specialist Youth Drug Court and other programmes that provide intensive assessment and supervision have also proved useful in assisting Persisters.


22 K L McLaren, Tough is Not Enough - Getting Smart about Youth Crime, Ministry of Youth Affairs, Wellington, New Zealand, June 2000, 16, available at <> (last accessed 8 September 2005).

23 Moffitt T E (1996) Adolescence-Limited and Life-Course Persistent Offending: A Complementary Pair of Developmental Theories, in T Thornberry (eds) Advances in Criminological Theory: Developmental Theories of Crimes and Delinquency, 11-54, London: Transaction Press quoted in K L McLaren, Tough is Not Enough - Getting Smart about Youth Crime, n 22, 16.

24 K L McLaren, Tough is Not Enough - Getting Smart about Youth Crime, n 22, 16.

25 Māori are the indigenous people of New Zealand.

26 These statistics are provided by the New Zealand Ministry of Justice, the New Zealand Police and anecdotal evidence from Youth Court Judges.

27 K L McLaren, Tough is Not Enough - Getting Smart about Youth Crime, n 22, 18.

28 Moffitt T E, Adolescence-Limited and Life-Course Persistent Antisocial Behaviour: A Developmental Taxonomy, Psychological Review, 100(4): 674-701.

29 K L McLaren, Tough is Not Enough - Getting Smart about Youth Crime, n 22, 36.

30 K L McLaren, Tough is Not Enough - Getting Smart about Youth Crime, n 22, 36.

31 Scott G Young Offenders: Current Issues in Policy and Practice, 1999, Wellington, New Zealand.

32 Doolan M, Work With Young People Who Offend, September 2001, Paper presented at a conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

33 M W Lipsey, The Effect of Treatment on Juvenile Delinquents: Results from Meta-Analysis, in F Losel, D Bender and T Bliesener (eds) Psychology and Law: International Perspectives, 1992, Berlin, Walter de Gruyter and Co.

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