Skip to content. | Skip to navigation


You are here: Home Publications and media Speeches What causes youth crime, and what can we do about it?

What causes youth crime, and what can we do about it?

What causes youth crime, and what can we do about it?

NZ Bluelight Ventures Inc - Conference & AGM

7 May 2009
Coronet Peak Hotel
Queenstown, New Zealand

Judge Andrew Becroft
Principal Youth Court Judge of New Zealand
Te Kaiwhakawa Matua O Te Kooti Taiohi o Aotearoa

1. Introduction1

We are in the midst of an exciting era in New Zealand youth justice. The Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act 1989 is twenty years old. It has proved itself as a piece of innovative legislation that has produced results in terms of reducing imprisonment and recidivism rates for children and young people. It has been studied and replicated by many international jurisdictions.

We are also seeing new research in the youth justice sector both from New Zealand and internationally. This research can help groups providing interventions for at-risk youth, by giving them better, scientifically validated information, to help tie proposed interventions to the needs of offenders, and the causes of their offending. We have better information than ever before about what causes children and young people to commit crime2, and how to target every dollar spent so that it produces the greatest reduction in recidivism possible.

Most importantly, the research has identified, what is obvious to those who work in this field, that "one size does not fit all". There are different types of youth offenders, and different causes of offending. These determine the type of intervention which will be effective.

Overall, apprehension rates for child and youth offending are maintaining a slow decline, with one exception. Apprehension rates for violent crime are increasing. This increase deserves special mention.

Table 1. Apprehension Rate per 10,000 Population by Age Group 1999-20083

Graph of apprehension rate of youth offenders aged 10 to 16 years old between 1999 and 2008. Graph shows a trend towards a slow, small and steady decline.

Table 2. Violence Apprehension Rate per 10,000 Population by Age Group 1999-20084

Graph of violence apprehension of youth offenders aged 10 to 16 years old between 1999 and 2008. Graph shows an increasing trend for the last 4 years from 2005 to 2008.

Significantly, the increase in apprehensions for violence offences amongst children and young people is replicated in all age groups. In fact the largest increase in violence crime is found in the over 50 age group! Generally, the increase in apprehension rates for violent crime for all age groups is attributed to an increase in apprehensions for domestic violence. The increased rate of apprehensions for domestic violence, in turn, is at least partly attributed to increased training by police in domestic violence.

The situation for youth however, is somewhat different. Youth offending statistics show increases since about 2004 in both the top end (wounding with intent and injuring with intent) and bottom end (common assault and male assaults female) violent offences. These increases cannot be ignored. However, while the number of violent offences is increasing, the total numbers of young people in this age group (14 to 16 year olds) has been decreasing since 2006. It is concerning to the youth justice community that youth violence appears to be rising while the population numbers are decreasing.

2. Understanding the different types of youth offenders

Research shows us that around one-quarter of all young men will commit at least one offence. Of that number 80% will commit only one or two offences. The remaining 20% are responsible for 80% of New Zealand's youth offending. This pattern is as evident internationally as it is in New Zealand5. It means that there is a small group (5%) of young males who are committing most offences. These are the young people who require the bulk of our attention.

Why is it that some young people commit no offences, while others commit one or two, or have extensive criminal careers? The answer is found in an analysis of the extensive research on the risk factors and protective factors for offending - that is, the environmental, social or biological factors that make a person more or less likely to commit offences.

Extensive data on risk and protective factors come from longitudinal studies, of which there are currently two in New Zealand. The Dunedin Longitudinal study is a longrunning research study of the lives of 1037 people born in Dunedin in 1972 and 1973. Study members have been assessed at regular intervals through their lives. This study has produced a large amount of information about the risk and protective factors for offending. Similarly the Christchurch Health and Development study is following 1265 people born in the Christchurch area in the mid-1970s. These studies have revealed that youth offending tends to follow one of two types of developmental pathway.

2.1 The life-course persistent offender

The first pathway is known as the life-course persistent offender. These individuals exhibit severe behaviour problems from a very early age, sometimes as young as two years old. Their lives have been marked by multiple adverse influences including family dysfunction. As children they may have exhibited subtle cognitive deficiencies, difficult temperament or hyperactivity. When compounded by adverse environmental factors such as inadequate parenting, exposure to violence or other trauma, disrupted family bonds or poverty, their brain developmental processes responsible for social behaviour have been adversely impacted6.

Life-course persistent offenders are sometimes described as having "conduct disorder". They may be aggressive, oppositional and violent. They often lack feelings of guilt, remorse, or victim empathy, and tend to be egocentric seekers of immediate gratification, who do not think about consequences. If left untreated, these behaviours escalate over the whole life span. It is apparent from the experience of the Youth Court, that 82% of this group of life-course-persistent offenders are male, at least 50% are Māori, up to 80% are not engaged with school, up to 75-80% have drug or alcohol problems. Psychological and psychiatric issues are also common.

2.2 The adolescent onset offender

The second pathway is known as the adolescent onset offender. This is a much larger group (up to 80% of all youth offenders). The lives of this group of offenders are not markedly disordered, and they don't tend to exhibit disproportionate anti-social behaviour during childhood. During puberty however, behavioural issues begin to develop. The causes of their offending are due to social processes such as attachment to anti-social peers or inadequate parenting, or exposure to cannabis, rather than neuro-developmental processes7. This group is much larger in number, and unlike their life-course persistent peers, they generally experience the normal range of emotions, including remorse and willingness to put things right.

It is vitally important to keep these two categories in mind when discussing the causes and solutions to youth offending. Their differing characteristics mean that they usually demonstrate different causes of their offending, and therefore, the solutions will also be different.

3. How do we identify the causes of youth offending? Risk and protective factors

A study of the causes of youth offending requires an analysis of risk and protective factors. A risk factor indicates the likelihood that a young person will commit an offence. Risk factors tend to fall into five categories – individual characteristics, family factors, school/work factors, associations with peers, and biological factors. The more risk factors a child or young person exhibits, the more likely they are to commit offences. The presence of just one risk factor is unlikely to lead to offending. The Christchurch longitudinal study found that children from families with 19 or more risk factors were 100 times more likely to end up with multiple problems as teenagers (including offending), than the 50% of the sample who had just six or fewer risk factors8.

Protective factors are positive influences in a young person's life that militate against the risk of offending. Protective factors are sometimes said to be the factors that produce resilience.

While it is true that the presence of multiple risk factors increases the likelihood of a young person committing an offence, the extent to which those risk factors can be said to cause the offending is not always a straight-forward relationship. Some risk factors such as poor relationships with parents, are more direct causes of offending. Other risk factors, such as poverty or conflict between parents have a more indirect or distal relationship to offending.

It is very difficult to know which risks are actually causes, and of course, this may differ between individuals. It may be possible to look at a particular individual who has already committed an offence and determine the causes of his or her offending. But at a population level, the best information we can produce is a study of risk factors for offending, and an understanding that the more risk factors an individual possesses, the more likely they are to commit offences.

'There is[ ]no single factor that can be specified as the 'cause' of anti-social or criminal behaviour. The tangled roots of delinquency can, more accurately, be found in the way multiple risk factors cluster together and interact in the lives of some children, while important protective factors are conspicuously absent.'9

For community groups working with at-risk young people, this information is particularly relevant. An understanding of the risk factors will provide a more structured way of identifying which young people end up offending. In this context, the following table may be helpful.

Top 10 risk factors in childhood for future offending and/or antisocial behaviour10

  Risk factors for children under 13   Risk factors for adolescents 13 and over
1 History of antisocial behaviour, behaviour problems, conduct disorder during childhood (lying, stealing, bullying, non-compliance, etc.) including contact with the law and arrest before age 12. 1 Contact with antisocial peers (those involved in law-breaking, drugs, violence, gangs, etc.) (the more peers or contact, the higher the risk) from age 13 onwards.
2 Use of tobacco, alcohol and/or other drugs, either weekly or more frequently, before age 12. 2 General offences, number or prior offences (the more prior offences, the higher the risk before the current age).
3 Male gender. 3 Aggression, fighting, violent offences.
4 Low self-control, impulsive, poor ability to stop and think before acting during childhood. 4 Low self-control, impulsive, poor ability to stop and think before acting.
5 Hyperactive, poor ability to pay attention during childhood. 5 Hyperactive, poor ability to pay attention.
6 Involved in fighting, aggression, acts of violence before age 12. 6 Poor supervision by parents/caregivers (knowing where young person is, who they are with, rules and consequences).
7 Low family income during childhood. 7 Low levels of warmth, affection and closeness between parent(s) and young person.
8 Neither parent had skilled work (that is, one or both are unemployed or in unskilled or semi-skilled jobs). 8 Tendency towards anxiety, stress.
9 Neither parent left school with any qualifications. 9 Few friends and social/recreational activities.
10 One or both parents has a history of antisocial criminal behaviour. 10 Length of first incarceration (the longer the period, the greater the risk).

4. Risk factors

The risk factors for "life-course persistent" offenders are often different than those for adolescent onset offenders. Life-course-persistent offenders have neuro-developmental factors from their early childhood as the primary cause of their offending. The risk factors for their offending revolve around the home and family environment: poverty, family disruption, transience, lack of good quality relationships, etc.

The risk factors for "adolescent onset" offenders are usually related to their current social environment: delinquent peers, drug and alcohol abuse, family dysfunction.

The way in which risk factors relate to life-course persistent offenders and adolescent onset offenders is complicated. There will often be crossovers between the categories. For example, the social risk factors of peers, substance abuse and family dysfunction will sometimes be relevant in the lives of life-course persistent offenders. Consequently, it is impossible to maintain a division between the risk factors for the two types of offenders.

The remainder of this paper will discuss the risk and protective factors, and solutions to the offending in a more general way, while maintaining the overriding distinctions between the two types of offenders.

4.1 Individual risk factors: conduct disorder

While challenging behaviours are exhibited by most children at various stages of development, some children and young people exhibit behaviours which are much worse than age-appropriate norms. These more extreme behaviours are characterised by aggression, hostility, defiance of authority, rule breaking, or extreme anti-social behaviour. When this behaviour is severe, persistent and results in a negative impact on people around them, they can be said to have a 'conduct disorder'11. Conduct disorder has been closely related in the longitudinal studies to increased rates of offending12.

Children who develop conduct disorder frequently come from home environments that have many sources of social, economic and family disadvantage. Studies have shown that it is not the presence of one specific disadvantage, such as poverty, that determines an adverse outcome, but rather the accumulation of many adverse factors13. It has been estimated that 5 - 10 % of the 3 - 17 year old population exhibits behaviour which could be categorised as conduct disorder. 75% of those individuals will be male14.

The similarities between the backgrounds of young people with conduct disorder, and those who identify as life-course persistent offenders are so similar, it is thought that almost all life-course persistent-type offenders have conduct disorder.

4.2 Family risk factors

Families play an enormous role in the shaping of a child's risk for future offending. Positive family environments can provide a strong base for the development of resilience in adolescent development. Conversely, negative environments can be a significant risk factor for anti-social behaviour and offending.

The ways in which family risk factors cause offending are slightly different for lifecourse persistent offenders and adolescent onset offenders. Life-course persistent offenders usually have multiple adversities to deal with in childhood, tending to produce neuro-developmental problems, which in turn cause social adjustment issues. The relevant family risk factors include experiences of violence, neglect, poor bonding, and poverty.

From the very first years, a child's brain development and learned social behaviours are influenced by the environment they encounter. Problematic early experiences create a lens through which all subsequent relationships are viewed, inhibiting a child's ability to take advantage of nurturing relationships encountered later15.

Exposure to violence at a young age has been well studied in recent years. Repeated exposure to violence early in a child's development can fundamentally alter neurological development16. The central nervous system is particularly sensitive to traumatic experiences in the early years, and can result in the overstimulation of certain brain structures. Children exposed to trauma have been found to have increased overall arousal, increased startle response, sleep disturbance, and abnormal cardiovascular regulation17. When the brain becomes "wired" in this way it can interrupt the opportunities for development of pro-social skills.

The Christchurch Health and Development Study has shown that exposure to harsh or abusive treatment during childhood greatly increases their risk of juvenile offending18.

One particular family problem the Youth Court sees regularly is an unstable, transient life style. This is more a feature of life-course persistent offenders due to the higher levels of family dysfunction. When a young person changes address frequently, not only are they at greater risk of dropping out of school, developing fewer positive friends, and boredom, they have less chance of experiencing the protective factors that come from connections to the community, such as organised social and cultural groups, team sports, or religious groups.

For adolescent onset offenders, the relationship between family risk factors and offending is different. Often these young people will have had positive experiences throughout childhood. During adolescence however, poor parenting practices such as lack of supervision, lack of reasonable rules and consistent consequences, may combine with other risk factors to result in offending.

4.3 Education risk factors

From the perspective of the Youth Court bench, it is obvious on a daily basis that there is a direct correlation between lack of engagement in education or vocational activities and serious criminal offending by young people19. This is a feature of both types of offenders, but may be more causally related to adolescent onset offenders.

School is important, not only in equipping a young person with the academic skills to achieve success and happiness. It also teaches pro-social attitudes and skills, helps develop friendships and forms a sense of belonging. All these things contribute to the development of self-esteem. Schools also keep a young person occupied for many hours of the day.

So it is not surprising, that young people who do not attend school have higher rates of anti-social behaviour. It is unclear, however, whether lack of attendance at school causes offending, or whether it is merely a co-exisiting characteristic. What is clear from the studies is that the co-relationship is so strong that all efforts to return a young person to the education system are likely to be beneficial.

Interestingly, one study has found that it is the fact of participation in school, rather than levels of school achievement that has a beneficial effect on offending. Merely attending on a regular basis appears to reduce the likelihood of offending20.

4.4 Peer risk factors

Peer risk factors refer to the problems that may arise when a young person associates with a friend who is already engaging in offending or other anti-social behaviour. These friendships can become a training ground for anti-social behaviour. Studies have shown that association with anti-social peers increases the likelihood of offending21.

The risk from anti-social peers is a strong feature of adolescent onset offenders who may have had positive childhoods, but begin to pick up several risk factors in adolescence. Once they reach puberty the influence of the family decreases and the influence of peers increases. In fact, of all the risk factors having causal relationships with youth offending, anti-social peers was the strongest22.

The negative influence from anti-social peers is also found in life-course-persistent offenders, but these offenders tend to be the 'bad influences' on other young people, and would commit offences with or without anti-social peers.

It has been suggested in some studies that puberty represents a "maturity gap" for adolescents23. Puberty produces a strong desire to be older, or more mature. Slightly older peers who are committing offences appear to be more mature because the things they are doing resemble the independence and choices that come with adulthood (such as drinking alcohol, or driving cars). In this way, exposure to the activities of anti-social peers can increase the likelihood of offending.

One study of 905 children found that while younger children disliked their peers who were physically aggressive. During puberty, that dissolved, and teenagers came to perceive their aggressive mates as having higher social status and more influence24.

Another strong risk factor related to peers is alcohol and drug abuse. While there is currently some debate about whether alcohol and drug abuse causes offending, or is merely an additional factor present in the already disordered lives of young offenders (and perhaps a symptom of it), the Youth Court regularly faces young people who commit offences to obtain money for alcohol or drugs.

4.5 Biological risk factors

The biological risk factors for offending by young people are complex and their relationship to offending is still being understood. They include genetics, neurotransmitters and neurobiology (meaning dysfunction of the hormones communicating between brain cells, and damage to the structure and function of the brain), and mental health problems.

The link between genes and offending is the subject of very interesting research currently. Several studies have shown strong circumstantial evidence that some offending may have heritable origins. This link is stronger for the life-course persistent-type of offender, than the adolescent onset offender25. The Dunedin Longitudinal Study has revealed a connection between a genotype that confers low levels of the enzyme monoamine oxidase (MAOA), and a predisposition to violent or anti-social behaviour. This correlation only exists, however, when an individual with that gene has been exposed to abuse as a child. This means that an individual with low levels of the MAOA enzyme and a history of abuse as a child, has a much greater risk of anti-social or violence behaviour26.

Poor mental health is an issue frequently seen in the Youth Court. That risk factor is found in both adolescent onset and life-course persistent offenders. Many young people appearing before the Youth Court exhibit mental health problems ranging from anxiety and depression to schizophrenia27. While many mental health problems will simply co-exist with offending, it must be true that it is causative of offending in some individual cases.

5. Protective factors

All the above risk factors can increase a young person's risk of offending. However, that is not the end of the story. Not all young people with multiple risk factors become offenders. The presence in a young person's life of a positive influence is sometimes enough to counter all the negative influences. These positive factors are said to be 'protective' against the risk of offending, and their presence in a young person's life can foster resilience against adversity.

Studying protective factors is particularly important in situations where removing risk factors may be too difficult. Interventions designed to create positive relationships, community connectedness, or a sense of self-esteem, for example, may be more effective than attempting to remove the anti-social peers, improving the household income, or improving parenting practices.

The relationship between risk and protective factors is extremely complex. For example, studies have shown that adequate parental supervision (knowing where your child is) is protective against youth offending, but that relationship is strongest amongst lower socioeconomic groups. Researchers have surmised that amongst lower socioeconomic groups, supervision is seen as a sign of care and concern; that the child is important to the adult. In higher socioeconomic groups, parental supervision does not provide the same protection, perhaps because it is seen more as a sign that the child is not trusted28.

While association with anti-social peers has been well established as a powerful risk factor for adolescent onset offenders, that risk factor is strongly moderated in the presence of strong bonds to family or school, adequate parental monitoring, or strong communication skills on the part of the young person. One study has shown that the anti-social peer group only starts to exert an influence when relationships with parents start to unravel29.

It has been demonstrated that the presence of at least one strong parental relationship may lead to fewer behavioural problems. In the absence of that, a strong relationship with a sibling or extended family member is helpful30.

Another important protective influence on the lives of young people at risk of offending is community connectedness. Involvement in community activities can help buffer other negative influences in at least three ways: by providing a context for learning "remedial" social skills that were not learned in a dysfunctional home, by the presence of more wellfunctioning peers and their parents modifying the behaviours of at risk young people and their parents, and by promoting bonds to the community.

Community connectedness can be achieved through social organisational processes such as sports teams, cultural groups, or church groups. Interestingly, one study has found that the level of benefit conferred by community extracurricular activities depends somewhat upon the level of structure of that activity. When structure was low (as in youth recreational centres), the risks of associating with anti-social peers, and consequential anti-social behaviours were increased31.

6. Māori youth offending

The disproportionate level of offending by Māori is of grave concern to the Youth Court. The statistics tell us that we are not doing well enough, and the time has come to bring the "elephant out of the closet", so to speak, and focus more clearly on finding answers to the causes and solutions to Māori offending. Māori young people account for about half police apprehensions in the 14 to 16 year age group, but their proportion of the population in that age group is about 17%. It has been estimated that 15 - 20% of Māori young people exhibit conduct disorder problems, compared to 5% of the total population32.

The longitudinal studies are particularly helpful here. The Christchurch Health and Development Study has shown that the higher rate of Māori offending is caused, not by being Māori, but by greater exposure by Māori to the risk factors for offending33. Māori young people are disproportionally represented amongst life-course persistent offenders, probably because Māori also have disproportionate rates of other general risk factors, such as poverty and exposure to domestic violence.

The causes of Māori youth offending are thought to be the same risk factors as for the general population, but with the possible addition of lack of cultural identity and separation from whānau and the wider Māori community34. It has also been suggested that the way in which young people are processed through the youth justice system may impact on rates of Māori offending, although this has not been well studied35. Data from the Christchurch Health and Disability Study found that while Māori young people reported committing more offences than Pakeha young people, their rate of apprehension by Police was greater than would have been expected on the basis of their offending rate alone36.

The longitudinal studies have identified that an important protective factor for Māori young people is a strong sense of Māori identity and connection to their culture.

The Christchurch Health and Development Study has recently produced results relating rates of offending to a sense of cultural identity amongst Māori. It showed that rates of offending (both officially recorded and self-reported offending) were about five times higher in the Māori study members, than the non-Māori members. Those rates reduced to three times higher, when adjustments were made for socioeconomic and adverse family factors. However, when study members were asked whether they identified themselves as Māori, the rates of offending for those identifying solely as Māori were roughly similar to those who identified themselves as non-Māori37. This research indicates that a strong sense of Māori identity and connectedness to Māori culture may reduce risks of offending.

7.Features of effective interventions for youth offenders

The identification of the risks for youth offending, together with an understanding of how those risks impact on the different types of youth offender, is the starting point for understanding the most effective interventions in this area.

7.1 Early intervention vs a life-course approach

As much youth offending is caused by issues surrounding the family, so early intervention will often be the most effective way of supporting those families to provide stable, supportive environments for children. Intervening early can help divert children from an anti-social pathway, before behaviour patterns become consolidated and resistant to change. This is particularly the case for life-course persistent offenders, who exhibit conduct disorder symptoms early and come from environments with multiple adverse influences.

The majority of youth offenders however (namely the "adolescent onset" type of offender) cannot be identified during childhood. For these offenders it is still important to have a range of age appropriate interventions, targeting their needs.

Recent research is providing a solid scientific basis for the provision of interventions in the youth offending area. The initiation and development of new programmes for young offenders and young people at risk should adopt a "prevention science framework", whereby a problem is defined, risk and protective factors are identified, effective programmes are identified from meta data and then thoroughly piloted and evaluated before full-scale implementation. It is crucial that a more systematic, evidence-based way of developing and funding youth justice programmes is established.

Identified priorities for interventions with life-course persistent offenders should be improving social ties, improving parental monitoring and positive relationships with the young person, reducing anti-social peers, and school performance38.

Identified priorities for interventions with adolescent onset offenders should be associations with anti-social peers, substance abuse, poor parental monitoring and negative relationships with parents39.

The following features of effective interventions deserve particular mention.

7.2 Anti-social peers

As discussed in paragraph 4.4, associating with delinquent peers has been found in many studies to be the most powerful predictor of adolescent onset offending behaviour. It is important, therefore, that wherever possible interventions should occur on an individual basis, perhaps in a family setting. While group-based programmes are obviously cheaper to provide, the risks of aggregating young people with anti-social behaviours can substantially reduce the benefits of the programme.

7.3 Residence vs non-residence

For similar reasons, all things being equal, a programme that is provided on a nonresidential basis is usually to be preferred over a programme provided residentially.

7.4 Better support for transition

Too often the Youth Court sees excellent programmes delivered to a young person, only for that young person to be "abandoned" when the programme finishes. Those first few days after leaving a period of residence, or a supported programme can be extremely stressful while a young person readjusts to the often more dysfunctional environment that they come from. All the good work in learning new behaviours in difficult situations can be lost if there is no support for applying those lessons in the young person's real life.

7.5 Boot camps/scared straight don't work

After a study of risk and protective factors, it becomes apparent why boot camps and "scared straight"-type interventions do not produce reduced rates of recidivism. Life-course persistent offenders commit offences because their childhood environments were so dysfunctional that they did not learn pro-social skills. These young people will not respond to the high-end discipline of a boot camp with a sudden desire to offend less, unless the intervention is supported by a comprehensive "wrap-around" programme when the young offender returns home.

Adolescent onset offenders offend because they have entered puberty at a time when there are other risk factors in their lives, such as anti-social peers, parenting problems, or alcohol and drug issues. The discipline of a boot camp will keep them busy and make them fitter, but does little to change these risk factors once they leave the camp.

"Scared straight"-type interventions, where a young person is taken to an adult prison to see how bad life in prison can be, also do not address the causes of offending for either type of offender. Conversely, they introduce young people to older anti-social "role models" who may represent the maturity that is yearned for in the adolescent years. Once life behind bars has been witnessed (and survived), it may no longer appear as scary.

8. What Police and community organisations can do

Only the worst 20% of youth offending finds its way to the Youth Court. The remaining 80% are dealt with by the police and community groups who are better equipped to provide solutions tailored to the young person's individual needs. That provision of interventions to young people who offend, together with family group conferences, are the cornerstones of the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act 1989.

Groups who deal with young people who are not yet offending can use the recent research on risk and protective factors to identify at-risk young people who may benefit from well-timed, and targeted interventions.

Police Youth Aid is currently rolling out a new screening tool to help identify the risk of a young person offending. Called YORST (Youth Offending Risk Screening Tool), the tool provides 14 questions to be answered by Police Youth Aid officers, concerning the prevalence of known risk factors in a young person's life. Those questions cover offending history, peer group, education or employment involvement, drug and alcohol use, care and protection history, and family factors. This tool is used for every child offender (aged 10 - 13 years old) after their second offence, and for every young offender (aged 14 - 16 years old) who is referred to a youth justice family group conference, or who is referred to Child Youth and Family for care and protection due to serious offending. This information will become an excellent tool for identifying where interventions will be most effective in a young person's life.

What should parents or community groups do to ensure that young people who are not offending remain that way? Firstly, there are no guarantees. Sometimes even young people with very positive backgrounds choose to offend. Having said that, the longitudinal studies and experience of the Youth Court indicate that the following elements in a young person's life will reduce their risks:

  • Girls - tend to moderate the risks of boys.
  • Family stability - promote strong family bonds, love, and two parents together.
  • Good parenting skills - reasonable rules, consistent consequences, and monitoring where the young people are and who their friends are.
  • School participation.
  • Community involvement - active involvement in sports, cultural, religious groups will keep them busy and foster pro-social skills.

9. Examples of effective interventions

The research on the causes and solutions of offending (or risk and protective factors), has several implications for the Youth Court. In particular, we must use more supervision with activity orders and less supervision with residence orders. Of course there are always individuals who must be held accountable for their offending by spending a time in a youth justice residence, and for whom custody is necessary in the public interest. However, when making a supervision with residence order, not only are we allowing a young person to associate with anti-social peers and all the anti-social education that entails, but we are depriving that young person of the opportunity to learn pro-social skills.

For those young offenders who do reach the Youth Court, and who require substantial interventions to address their offending, the following are proven, evidence based interventions40:

  • Positive Parenting Programme (Triple P):
    This comprehensive intervention includes parenting programmes for the parents of children aged 1-14 years with conduct disorder/severe antisocial behaviour. Triple P has five levels of intervention of increasing strength from instructional material to comprehensive parent training including home visits.
  • Multi-systemic therapy (MST):
    This individualised intervention targets the biggest risk factors in a young person's life (school, family, peers, neighbourhood, and organisations the young person connects with). It is a short-term (five to six month) intensive, community-based intervention. Practitioners have low caseloads (three to six), are on call 24/7 and provide an intensive level of client contact (multiple contacts per week, in person or by phone), especially early in the intervention process. Service delivery can be out of hours to accommodate family needs. Practitioners are rigorously supervised by MST trained supervisors to ensure interventions are goal focussed, adhere to the nine principles of MST and are evidence-based. MST has been evaluated in the New Zealand setting, and been found to be capable of significantly reducing offending and other family and peer-related risk factors. In New Zealand, Youth Horizons Trust and Richmond Fellowship hold a franchise for MST. They provide training and supervision for New Zealand MST teams.
  • Multi-dimensional treatment foster care (MTFC):
    Community families are recruited, trained and paid to provide placements for young people as an alternative to group homes. Foster parents are provided with weekly group supervision with other foster parents facilitated by a supervisor. They also receive daily telephone calls covering problems during the previous 24 hours. The young person receives weekly individual therapy focussed on building skills in problem solving, social skills and nonaggressive means of expression. When it is planned for the young person to return to the care of the biological family, weekly parenting training is provided. The young person is closely monitored, especially to prevent contact with delinquent peers. Supervisors are on call 24/7, which reflects the level of support required for foster parents caring for such difficult to manage young people in therapeutically effective ways. At least one organisation is considering the use of MTFC in New Zealand.
  • Functional family therapy (FFT):
    This is a short-term behavioural intervention that involves 12-24 hours of therapist contact with a family seeking to change the patterns of family interaction and communication in such a way that adolescent conduct disorder or severe antisocial behaviour is no longer functional. FFT is designed to improve communication and reciprocity between family members and includes many of the evidence-based interventions that are part of parent training programmes like Incredible Years, adapted for adolescents. There are currently few practitioners trained in FFT in New Zealand.

10. Effective interventions for Māori offending

A review of research about effective interventions for indigenous and ethnic minority youth, written for the Ministry of Youth Affairs in 2000, found that there was little research in this area. However, the limited data available indicated that for Māori, programmes would be most effective where:

  • There was whānau involvement.
  • They were provided by people with mana (status) and with whom the young people could identify.
  • They acknowledged, accepted and reinforced the importance of identity, cultural knowledge and history.
  • They addressed practical academic, employment and financial needs.
  • They taught the contemporary relevance of Māori values.

It is important to note that, the inclusion of Māori cultural elements into a programme will not beneficially impact upon rates of Māori offending on their own. But if the underlying programme is based on a prevention science methodology, then the inclusion of Māori cultural elements may increase rates of participation, engagement and motivation to change.

11. Conclusion

It is impossible to be definitive about the causes of youth offending. Youth crime is not caused by a specific, easily identifiable list of factors, but by the presence in a young person's life of multiple risk factors, and the absence of protective factors. Different individuals respond to those risk and protective factors in different ways.

Instead of discussing the causes of youth offending, it is better to approach the issue by identifying the various risk factors for offending, and talk about the interventions that can either reduce those risks or increase protective factors in a young person's life.

It is also helpful in any discussion on the causes of offending, to understand the two main types of offender. Life-course persistent and adolescent onset offenders have different offending profiles and differ in their background risks for offending.

Interventions with life-course persistent offenders must emphasise remedial social skills if they are to have any chance of reducing future offending and deal with conduct disorder issues. Interventions with adolescent onset offenders must address, wherever relevant, any drug and alcohol problems, anti-social peers, and parenting problems.

1 Compiled by Judge Andrew Becroft, Principal Youth Court Judge, Youth Court of New Zealand, in conjunction with Linda McIver LLB(Hons), M(Jur), Research Counsel to the Principal Youth Court Judge.
2 McLaren, K. (2000) Tough is not enough. Published Ministry of Youth Affairs, page 20.
3 Police Crime Statistics for calendar year ending 31 December 2008.
4 See note 3.
5 See note 2, page 16.
6 Moffitt, T. Life-Course-Persistent versus Adolescence-Limited Antisocial Behavior. In Developmental Psychopathology. (2nd Ed) Vol. 3, Ed. Cicchetti & Cohen. Chapter 15, page 571.
7 See note 6.
8 Fergusson, D.M. & Lunskey, M.T. (1996) Adolescent Resiliency to Family Adversity. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, Vol 37, no. 3, pages 281-292
9Risk and Protective Factors. Published by the UK Youth Justice Board 2005, page 6.
10 New Zealand Criminal Justice Sector - Outcomes Report June 2008, page 21.
11 Advisory Group on Conduct Problems (2009) Conduct Problems- Best Practice Report. Published by the Ministry of Social Development, page 1.
12 See note 11, page 14.
13 Fergusson, DM. Horwood, LJ. Lynsky, MT. The childhoods of multiple problem adolescents: A 15 year longitudinal study. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry. 1994;35(6):1123-40
14 See note 11, page 13.
15 Luthar, S. Resilience in Development: A Synthesis of Research Across Five Decades. (2nd Ed) Vol. 3, Ed. Cicchetti & Cohen. Chapter 20, pages 739-795, 756.
16 See note 15.
17 See note 15.
18 Fergusson, D.M. & Lynskey, M.T. (1997) Physical punishment/maltreatment during childhood and adjustment in young adulthood. Child Abuse & Neglect, Vol. 21, No. 7, pages 617-630.
19 A United Kingdom study published in 1982 found that around 44% of secondary school truants were offenders, compared with 15% of non-truants. See Risk and Protective Factors. Published by the UK Youth Justice Board 2005, page 14.
20 See note 2, page 31.
21 See note 15.
22 See note 2, page 28.
23 See note 6, page 580.
24 See note 6.
25 See note 6.
26 Caspi, A. McClay, J. Moffitt, TE. et al. Role of genotype in the cycle of violence in maltreated children. Science 2002;297:851-854
27 While New Zealand statistics are unavailable, research in the United States shows that 77% of males and 63% of females in the juvenile justice system had a diagnosable mental health disorder, and 27% had a severe disorder requiring immediate and significant treatment. (See Teplin, L. Pyschiatric disorders of juveniles in detention. OJJDO Juvenile Justice Bulletin April 2006). In the United Kingdom research has shown that amongst young people who offend, 31% have mental health problems; 18% had problems with depression; 10% suffer from anxiety; 9% report a history of self-harm in the preceding month; 9% suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder; 7% have problems with hyperactivity; and 5% report psychotic-like symptoms. (See Youth Justice Board "Mental health needs and effectiveness of provision for young offenders in custody and the community", London, as reported in Young People and 'Risk' Ed Blyth, M et al, page 54.)
28 See note 15, page 760.
29 Ary, DV et al. Adolescent Problem Behavior: The Influence of Parents and Peers. In Behaviour Research and Therapy, 37. Also mentioned in McLaren, K. (2000) Tough is not enough. Published Ministry of Youth Affairs, page 29.
30 See note 15.
31 Mahoney, JL. & Stattin, H. Leisure activities and adolescent antisocial behavor: The role of structure and social context. (2000) Journal of Adolescence, 23, 113-127, as reported in Luthar, S. Resilience in Development: A Synthesis of Research Across Five Decades. (2nd Ed) Vol. 3, Ed. Cicchetti & Cohen. Chapter 20, pages 739-795.
32 See note 11, page 41.
33 Fergusson, M. et al. Ethnicity, Social Background and Young Offending: A 14-year longitudinal study. (1993) In Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology 26: 155-170.
34Whanake Rangatahi: Programmes and services to address Māori youth offending. Published by Te Puni Kokiri (2000), page 27.
35 See note 34, page 35.
36 Fergusson, M. et al. Ethnicity and Bias in Police Contact Statistics. (1993) In Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology 26: 193-206.
37 Fergussion, D. Ethnicity, Social Disadvantage and Crime. A presentation to Institute of Judicial Studies seminar Diversity Programme: Violence, 2 April 2009.
38 See note 2, page 36.
39 See note 2, page 36.
40Inter-Agency Plan for Conduct Disorder/Severe Antisocial Behaviour. Published by the Ministry of Social Development (2007), page 52.

Back to top