Risk and protective factors

Research has demonstrated that behaviours displayed by children as young as pre-school age, and behaviours displayed by juveniles, can flag potential risk of later, or continuing criminal activity. Failure to identify the risks and address their underlying causes increases the likelihood of juvenile offending.

Available knowledge about juvenile offending points to the need for early intervention, and where possible, intervention that comes before contact with the criminal justice system. There is strong evidence that suggests early intervention can reduce antisocial behaviour in children and delinquent behaviour in adolescents, especially for those living in disadvantaged communities.

Risk factors

A significant amount of research has been undertaken into the factors that are related to a young person's participation in criminal activity.These factors can be used to flag potential risk of whether or not a person is likely to become involved in criminal activity.

A number of risk factors have been consistently identified in research as being associated with juvenile offending. Risk factors include features of a young person's characteristics, their family and their social/environmental circumstances.

The main factors are:

  • Anti-social attitudes
  • Anti-social peers
  • Anti-social personality patterns
  • History of anti-social behaviour
  • Problematic home environment
  • Problems and lack of achievement at school/work
  • Problematic leisure and recreational activities
  • Substance abuse

These factors are known as 'dynamic' risks. That is, these are things in the life and environment of the young person that are amenable to intervention and change.

There are a number of other 'static' risk factors - things that can't be changed - that increase the likelihood of a person's involvement in crime. These static risks include:

  • Number of contacts with the criminal justice system
  • Offence type
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander status
  • Experience of trauma
  • Age at first contact with the criminal justice system

Protective factors

Research has identified a number of protective factors that can reduce the likelihood of a young person engaging in criminal behaviour. Where they are strong, these protective factors can effectively reduce the likelihood of continued criminal behaviour by managing exposure to, and offsetting the influence of, multiple risks.

Individuals may have similar risk factors, but differ in recidivism as a result of the presence or absence of protective factors. They represent strengths to build upon and can reduce the impact of risk factors that are present. Protective factors may involve strengths in individual disposition and competencies, family environment and relationships or external support systems.

Protective factors that have been identified as reducing the risk of anti-social behaviour and delinquency are:

  • Pro-social behaviour (such as empathy)
  • Good cognitive performance (such as appropriate language development and good academic performance)
  • Supportive, interested parents or carers
  • Engagement with community activities
  • Social and problem-solving skills

The research on risk and protective factors underpins the elements of the proposed early intervention model.

Identifying Low to High risk offenders

Central to early intervention is the identification of young people who are at risk of offending. There are a number of screening tools that have been developed in other countries that are used to identify risk and protective factors in the life of a young person.

Research undertaken by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) has demonstrated how information that is routinely collected by government agencies in NSW can be used to identify young people who are at risk of re-offending. This information is presented in Table 1, below.

Table 1: Risk factors identified

Variable​Indication of increased risk

​Age

The younger the juvenile at first contact and/or first court appearance

​ATSIBeing of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent
Family status

Not living with both natural parents

Placement in out-of-home care

One or both parents deceased

​Trauma

Experiencing trauma within last five years (death of close family member; divorce/ separation; witness/victim of domestic violence; sexual/ emotional abuse)

​Neglect/abuseBeing a victim of neglect or abuse
​School attendance

Not attending school at time offence committed*

Has been suspended or expelled

​Peer associationAssociation with delinquent peers/committing an offence in company
​Offence type​​Has committed a theft, deception or violent offence
​Number of criminal justice contactsOne or more previous contacts with the criminal justice system (incremental)

* Borderline significance

In this process, it is important to recognise the cumulative effect of risk factors on the likelihood of re-offending. That is, as the number of risk factors increases, so does the risk of re-offending.

Figure 1, reproduced from the research undertaken by BOCSAR, shows that the predicted probability of a young person being re-convicted within four years who has only one risk factor is 0.56. With the presence of two risk-factors, the probability increases to 0.71, three risk factors to 0.83, four to 0.92 and five, to 0.96.

Figure 1: Cumulative Effect of Risk Factors on Re-Offending Risk

Cumulative Effect of Risk Factors on Re-Offending Risk 

The calculation of offending risk, based on the number of risk factors identified for the young person, would be used to determine whether they are a low risk of medium risk or high risk. This determination would inform the type and intensity of service delivery that would follow. The process of screening and assessment is discussed in the elements of the Youth on Track model.