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Prevention of Serious and Violent Juvenile Offending

G.A. Wasserman, L.S. Miller and L. Cothern

Most youth who exhibit serious antisocial behavior begin to do so by age 15. At this point, it is usually easy to identify these youth, but their behaviors may be so entrenched that they are resistant to change. Also, adolescent peer groups, which exert a powerful influence, are often targeted for change or as a vehicle of change. That is, the individual is encouraged to give up his or her group, or members of the group are used as counselors or mediators. Programs for adolescents are less likely to involve families than programs for other ages, although the family still has a profound influence on the youth.

Universal interventions. Aimed at reducing violence or resolving conflict, universal interventions for adolescents are a recent development; many of them target African American youth. However, these programs have several problems, including:

Farrell and Meyer (1997) experienced this last problem in a study testing a social skills and problem-solving curriculum for African American sixth graders. Boys in both the intervention and control groups had an increased number of problems during the study, although boys in the intervention group experienced a lower rate of increase than did boys in the control group. The rate of increase was higher among girls in the intervention group than among girls in the control group. The distinction may have been caused by differences in patterns of aggression among girls or by the mixed-sex groups and male group leaders used in the study.

Orpinas and colleagues (1995) examined the Second Step curriculum (Committee for Children, 1990), a conflict resolution program using peer mediators. The study reported that the intervention had no effect on aggressive behavior and produced marginal improvements elsewhere. However, the choice of school or classroom was not random (only "good" teachers were assigned to implement the program), and only self-report measures were used.

Selected interventions
Gottfredson (1986) evaluated a selected intervention for adolescents, Positive Action Through Holistic Education (PATHE), a multicomponent school-based program for impoverished 11- to 17-year-olds. The program sought to improve student attachment to school, academic success, self-esteem, and student-faculty communication through teacher training and student counseling, tutoring, and a student leadership system. Communication with families was also enhanced. The program had no effect on antisocial behavior, and participants reported higher drug involvement at posttest.

Gottfredson and Gottfredson (1992) evaluated Project STATUS, a supplemental law-related and moral development curriculum, in which students took part in field trips and structured role-play. This curriculum positively affected academic performance, as demonstrated by higher grades and graduation rates for students in the intervention group. The same students also reported less delinquency and drug use and higher self-esteem than did students in the control group.

Gabriel (1996) evaluated Self-Enhancement, Inc., a violence prevention program for African American students in grades 8 to 10. The program sought to enhance intermediary protective factors such as self-control, self-efficacy, social competence, and social bonding through field trips, conflict resolution, and student-led antiviolence campaigns. Attrition was 28 percent, and targeted protective factors did not improve. Intervention students reported decreased fighting and weapon carrying after 1 year in the program.

Indicated interventions
Henggeler and colleagues have examined multisystemic therapy as an indicated intervention for adolescents. Because this approach specifically targets serious juvenile offending, the results are especially important. Multisystemic therapy combines family therapy, parent management techniques for older children, and problem-focused interventions in peer and school settings in an intensive family preservation treatment program. It has been found to increase family cohesiveness (Henggeler, Melton, and Smith, 1992), increase the adaptability and support of families of serious juvenile offenders (Borduin et al., 1995), and decrease father-mother and father-child conflict (Henggeler and Blaske, 1990). Treated adolescents were less likely to be rearrested and spent fewer days incarcerated than adolescents in the control group (Henggeler, Melton, and Smith, 1992). Overall recidivism for those completing multisystemic therapy was 22 percent; for those completing individual therapy, the rate was 71 percent. Treatment gains were maintained, even at the 4-year follow up (Borduin et al., 1995). The dropout rates for those receiving multisystemic therapy were 10 percent and 15 percent, compared with 38 percent and 25 percent for those receiving individual therapy (Borduin et al., 1995; Henggeler, Melton, and Smith, 1992), probably because multisystemic therapy targets three or more systems and individual therapy usually targets only one.


Borduin, C.M., Cone, L.T., Mann, B.J., Henggeler, S.W., Fucci, B.R., Blaske, D.M., & Williams, R.A. 1995. Multisystemic treatment of serious juvenile offenders: Long-term prevention of criminality and violence. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 63:569-578.

Brewer, D.D., Hawkins, J.D., Catalano, R.F. & Neckerman, H.J. 1995. Preventing serious, violent, and chronic juvenile offending: A review of evaluations of selected strategies in childhood, adolescence, and the community. In Sourcebook on Serious, Violent, and Chronic Juvenile Offenders, edited by J.C. Howell, B. Krisberg, J.D. Hawkins, & J.J. Wilson. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Committee for Children. 1990. Second Step: A Violence Prevention Curriculum. Seattle, WA: Committee for Children.

Farrell, A.D., & Meyer, A.L. 1997. The effectiveness of a school-based curriculum for reducing violence among urban sixth-grade students. American Journal of Public Health 87(6):979-984.

Gabriel, R.M. 1996. Self-Enhancement, Inc. Violence Prevention Program. Portland, OR: RMC Research.
Gottfredson, D.C. 1986. An empirical test of school-based environmental and individual interventions to reduce the risk of delinquent behavior. Criminology 24:705-731.

Gottfredson, D.C., & Gottfredson, G.D. 1992. Theory-guided investigation: Three field experiments. In Preventing Antisocial Behavior, edited by J. McCord and R.E. Tremblay. New York, NY: Guilford.

Henggeler, S.W., & Blaske, D.M. 1990. An investigation of systematic conceptualizations of parent-child coalitions and symptom change. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 58:336-344.

Henggeler, S.W., Melton, G.B., & Smith, L.A. 1992. Family preservation using multisystemic therapy: An effective alternative to incarcerating serious juvenile offenders. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 60:953-961.

Orpinas, P., Parcel, G.S., McAlister, A., & Frankowski, R. 1995. Violence prevention in middle schools: A pilot evaluation. Journal of Adolescent Health 17:360-371.

Tolan, P.H., & Guerra, N.G. 1994. What Works in Reducing Adolescent Violence: An Empirical Review of the Field. Monograph prepared for the Center for the Study and Prevention of Youth Violence. Boulder, CO: University of Colorado.

Wasserman, G. A., Miller, L. S. and Cothern, L. (2000) Prevention of Serious and Violent Juvenile Offending, Juvenile Justice Bulletin, April 2000

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