Preventing Youth Offending: Research evidence

Four studies on: Learning disability nursing; Risk, promotive and protective factors; Restorative justice-based practices; and Reinventing Diversion

Study 1: Learning disability nursing in the criminal justice system: achieving justice for all - understanding need and enabling change for young people in the youth offending team and resolution and understanding for victims
Karina Hepworth and Helen Williams, Journal of Intellectual Disabilities and Offending Behaviour, (2015)

It is estimated that between 60-90 per cent of young offenders have speech, language and communication (SLC) needs and 20-30 per cent have a learning disability, meaning the functions of the youth justice system (YJS) are unintelligible for many within it and that support interventions within Youth Offending Teams (YOTs) to prevent re-offending may be setting up young people to fail. Research has also considered whether an autism diagnosis is a factor in offending behaviour.

Although health is a statutory part of multi-agency YOTs, lack of stipulation of the exact role health should play means localities configure their teams differently, many relying on child and adolescent mental health services' limited input to fulfil this requirement.

This paper seeks to consider how learning disability nursing skills compliment the range of expertise in the multi-professional YOT, using a case study highlighting these skills to improve the experience of a young woman with previously unidentified needs through the YJS, from pre-sentence to completion of her order.

Role of the learning disability nurse

A learning disability specialist enables person-centred care specific to the person's strengths and needs, helping to balance between individual welfare and victim justice. In her 2012 study, Newman states their role also ensures "timely referrals for more specialist assessments and better data collection to inform future service planning and delivery".

Early recognition of needs is a vital factor in the success of co-working with such specialists. If an individual need is hidden and an intervention plan agreed which does not allow for the difficulties the young person may face in meeting requirements, valuable time may be lost resulting in the young person breaching their order and the practitioner feeling they have little or no impact.

When concerns are raised and a referral is made to the specialist worker, the child or young person's individual needs are assessed - including mental capacity and mental health needs, SLC needs, the possibility of a brain injury, or physical concerns such as epilepsy or diabetes. As with all YOT staff, the specialist worker endeavours to build a trusting and enabling relationship, while ensuring the young person has the capacity to enter a plea and whether support and reasonable adjustments/specialist resources would be required in court.

In addition, the specialist worker communicates their needs through contribution to the pre-sentence report, liaison with the judiciary and court officer or supporting directly in court and planning care with the case holder to ensure the intervention is accessible and meaningful.

Case study

Alice's story demonstrates the impact of an intervention where the specialist worker encourages the allocated YOT practitioner to work with Alice's presenting behaviour, resulting in an overdue diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder. An effective plan to suit Alice's individual needs and ability is put together, consisting of:

  • Working in close collaboration with Alice and her family and agreeing each aspect of the plan with them, reviewing it when further needs became apparent.
  • Assessment using the Ability Screening Index, the Adaptive Behaviour Scale and the Adaptive Behaviour Assessment System to identify hidden yet significant needs which would impact on Alice's ability to comply with her order.
  • Using relevant resources to highlight how Alice's facial expression, tone of voice and body language communicate a range of emotions. Through role play with different members of the YOT Alice practiced recognising, understanding and using body language, she engaged in work around her conversational skills, how to start and end discussions and learnt about appropriate topics for discussion.
  • Using visual prompts and symbols to enable Alice to stop inappropriate behaviour - and to implement a successful community project working in a local care home for older people with dementia, helping them to use symbols to communicate their needs to staff.
  • Building on strengths and celebrating success.


Alice agreed to information about the successful work she had completed and her diagnosis being shared with the victim of her offence, which helped the victim understand it and feel reassured it would not reoccur. Alice was provided with information about support groups to ensure ongoing support upon completion of her order.

Study 2: Risk, promotive, and protective factors in youth offending: Results from the Cambridge study in delinquent development
David Farrington, Maria Ttofi and Alex Piquero, Journal of Criminal Justice (2015)

This article reports on The Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development, a longitudinal survey of 411 London males. The study investigates the extent to which different factors (variables) measured at age eight to 10 predicted convictions between ages 10 and 18.

Participants constituted a complete population of boys aged eight and nine in schools in a working-class area of London in 1961/62. These males were first assessed in 1961/62 and followed up to age 48 in interviews and age 56 in criminal records. Information was also collected in annual interviews with parents and from teacher ratings. A wide range of variables listed and defined in the original article were measured. ‘Highest' and ‘lowest' categories for each variable were informed by evidence.

Farrington and colleagues introduce a number of definitions to help bring clarity to the topic of protective factors:

  • Risk factors - a variable that predicts a high probability of offending in the lowest scoring 25 per cent for a given variable such as school achievement
  • Promotive factors - a variable that predicts a low probability of offending in the highest scoring 25 per cent for a given variable such as school achievement
  • Interactive protective factors - a variable that predicts a low probability of offending among children at risk but not among other children
  • Risk-based protective factors - a variable that predicts a low probability of offending among children at risk.

It is important to remember that none of these factors are necessarily causes and that further research would be needed to establish causal relationships.

Risk factors

Important risk factors for offending behaviour were:

  • High "troublesomeness" (measured using peer and teacher ratings of "getting into trouble")
  • High daring (measured using peer and parent ratings of, for example, taking risks in traffic)
  • A convicted parent.

Additional factors associated with an increased risk of offending were low nonverbal intelligence, impulsiveness (psychomotive clumsiness), lower family income, lower socioeconomic status of the job of the highest earning parent in the household, mothers' anxiety (measured using social worker ratings and records of psychiatric treatment), parenting, and separation from a parent (for at least three months, other than through bereavement).

Promotive factors

A low score for anger and having a smaller circle of friends were separately found to be promotive factors. For example, 16 per cent of boys with low anger scores were convicted compared with 32 per cent of boys with high anger scores. The boy's anxiety (based on parent ratings) and mother's working hours also had mainly promotive effects.

Interactive protective effects

The most important interactive protective effects were:

  • High nonverbal intelligence, high verbal intelligence, high school attainment, and high parental interest in education (measured using social worker ratings) protected against low parenting capacity
  • High parental supervision (parents knew where their son was when he was out) protected against dishonesty in boys (measured using peer ratings)
  • High family income protected against a convicted parent.

For example, of 184 boys whose parents had relatively low capacity to parent, only 13 per cent of 45 with high nonverbal intelligence were convicted compared with 40 per cent of 139 less intelligent boys.

Risk-based protective factors

The most important risk-based protective factors were:

  • High verbal intelligence and high school attainment protected against low parenting capacity
  • Low daring protected against low parenting capacity and high anxiety in the mother
  • Low "troublesomeness" protected against high hyperactivity, low nonverbal intelligence, large family size, low school attainment and separation from a parent
  • Small family size protected against low nonverbal intelligence
  • High parental interest in education protected against low parenting capacity, separation from a parent, high daring, and poor housing
  • High parental supervision protected against high hyperactivity, high dishonesty, and high anxiety in the mother.


Implications for practice

This study revealed numerous promotive, risk-based protective and interactive protective factors indicating that:

  • Particular interventions should be targeted at individuals displaying particular risk factors. For example, since high parental interest in education tends to nullify the risk factor of low parenting capacity, efforts should be made to identify parents with low parenting capacity and improve their interest in their children's education
  • The results of interventions could help to determine which relationships are causal, which is a crucial next step
  • Theories of offending should attempt to explain findings on promotive and protective factors rather than just focusing on risk factors.

While the research's longitudinal design is a strength it does mean that all the age eight to 10 variables were measured many years ago, when social conditions in South London were different. It is important to investigate the extent to which these results might be replicated in more recent longitudinal surveys.

Study 3: Restorative justice-based practices in settings with children and young people: Examining the views of young people
Duncan Gillard, International Journal of Police Science & Management, (2015)

Restorative approaches are characterised by a number of key assumptions:

  • Victims of crime should actively participate in developing consequences for offenders
  • Victims and offenders are not always enemies
  • Formal retribution is not the most effective tool to address reoffending.

One-to-one restorative mediation sessions and restorative conferences reflect these principles and are used throughout the UK. Restorative approaches are also used in some schools. Various theories attempt to explain the effectiveness of restorative justice, including Reintegrative Shaming Theory, and Procedural Justice Theory. These share the following assumptions:

  • Tolerating crime increases the likelihood of further offending
  • Stigmatising or shaming the person makes crime more likely
  • Shaming of a harmful act but remaining respectful of the person reduces the likelihood of further offending.

Gillard attempts to establish a set of recognisable principles characterising children and young people's experiences of restorative justice programmes. An interpretive methodology was employed, with six children and young people participating in semi-structured interviews. Four participants were school-based and two were YOT-based, only one was male. Following analysis of interview transcripts two overarching themes emerged: open, honest enquiry and empowerment.

Open, honest enquiry

Young people said restorative approaches felt like open, honest enquiry into the harmful act and its context. Sub-themes of acknowledging your contribution, speaking truthfully and reducing blaming tendencies were evident. The participants reported feeling safe enough to acknowledge their part, and often attributed this to the shift from retribution to taking responsibility. This was a key factor in being able to speak truthfully, with participants acknowledging they had not previously done so for fear of punishment: "It's definitely easier to say everything because … it's not for blame."

Blame reduction was linked to feeling others had an increased understanding of your situation and a more sympathetic view of each other, thus reducing the need for persistent persecution. This enabled a shared understanding of the events to evolve and contributed to resolution and feeling relieved. When asked what she felt at the end, one participant replied that, rather than blamed she felt "a lot more happy… I knew what other people had felt… they knew how I felt".


The empowerment felt by children and young people helped them engage; they felt participation was their choice, and they had a real involvement in solution design. Five participants described making informed choices to participate. A significant factor was the ability of the restorative justice practitioner to prepare them for the process, assisting them to feel emotionally safe. Participants spoke of ways forward being decided by them, rather than the adults involved; the mediator played an important part in guiding and clarifying: "He led us in the right direction and between us three we said what we were going to do." This ownership meant participants were more motivated to adhere to agreements, which has implications for rates of recidivism.

Gillard's interpretation of these findings offers a deeper understanding of the psychological processes contributing to the success of restorative justice approaches. He draws on Barton's Empowerment Model of Restorative Justice to identify:

  • Primary stakeholders (victims, offenders, families) have to be involved since they have the knowledge needed for reparation
  • Secondary stakeholders, such as head teachers, may not have been present or affected by the incident.

Implications for practice

Barton's deep/surface approaches to problem solving are also important. The former is concerned with addressing emotional harm and wellbeing, rather than monetary compensation, and very much chimes with the experiences of the study's participants. They described restorative approaches as flexible and responsive, reflecting practice informed by responsive regulation. Institutions operating in this framework address concerns as and when they arise, and take consideration of other important contextual issues, enabling the problem to be seen within a broader social context rather than as a fundamental flaw in the person/offender. This assists young people to reduce cognitive dissonance without blaming or denial.

Study 4: Re-inventing Diversion
Roger Smith, Youth Justice, (2014)

This article reviews recent developments in the area of ‘out of court' disposals in youth justice in England and Wales, highlighting the recent trend towards decreased use of formal procedures to deal with the reported offences of children and young people.

"Diversion" has been part of youth justice in England and Wales since the early part of the 20th century and shifts away from prosecution and court procedure are now mirrored by the use of diversionary measures of varying formality. Since 2008, there have been reductions in the use of formal procedures at all youth justice stages, from the point of entry through to the use of custody, resulting in a considerable liberalisation in the treatment of young offenders. To understand an emerging pattern of outcomes, the article summarises figures showing a decrease in crime running parallel to this liberalisation and considers some innovations in diversionary practice, before suggesting possible explanations for what is happening, and which may point towards future developments.

This summary looks at the current diversionary practice methods highlighted within the article.

Youth Restorative Disposal

Youth Restorative Disposal (YRD) was designed to be administered by the police, available only once to young people found to be responsible for "low-level, anti-social and nuisance offending" and only where the young person concerned had not previously received a reprimand, final warning or caution. It was expected that the YRD would incorporate a restorative element; subsequent research indicated that this usually consisted of an apology, although compensation and reparation arrangements were also utilised. Apologies might be instant in cases of shoplifting, but could involve a "conference" with young person, victim and possibly parents/guardians.

The evaluation of the YRD found that there was a degree of agreement among practitioners that it was a good mechanism for dealing with young people and reducing first time entrants to the justice system.


Triage schemes based in police stations combined diversion from formal sanctions with restorative interventions while ensuring that welfare needs were addressed. Thus triage was intended to be an initial assessment of young people reported for an offence, followed by a specific response:

  • Level 1, leading to diversion from the youth justice system
  • Level 2, involving a referral to supportive interventions
  • Level 3, resulting in "fast-tracked" progression through the system.

The appropriate level of intervention would be determined according to specified criteria including offending history and gravity of current offence. In practice, triage operated variably in different areas but was nevertheless highly valued for its early intervention and diversionary approach by stakeholders.

Youth Justice Liaison and Diversion (YJLD)

The YJLD pilot scheme was introduced in 2008 to promote a more welfare-oriented approach to diversion, inspired by evidence that young people entering the YJS were approximately twice as likely to experience one of a range of "vulnerabilities", including mental health needs and learning difficulties. YJLD would seek to identify opportunities to divert young people:

  • Away from the youth justice system towards mental health, emotional support and welfare systems (taking into account proportionality, public interest and risk issues)
  • To provide "enhanced" services to meet their needs
  • To encourage diversion away from custodial settings.

In practice, the scheme was implemented differently across the six pilot sites and police resistance was encountered, due to possible impact on their detection figures (a system which has now been abolished). Referral routes were varied, and the timing of the referrals themselves had implications for the potential to avoid formal processing of young people. In some cases, police had already made decisions before the YJLD scheme became involved. Some systematic pathways for diverting away from the youth justice system were established in the pilot sites, while other areas implemented a more ad hoc approach to diversion.

Implications for practice

The author praises the establishment of diversion as a legitimate core objective and celebrates a number of effective local initiatives. However, three areas of concern are highlighted that represent significant unresolved issues:

  • There being different underlying justifications for - and ways of undertaking - out-of-court disposals, with consequences for establishing ‘successful' outcomes
  • The onset of economic difficulties and the need for agencies to achieve cost savings coinciding with the onset of the recorded decline in prosecutions in the late-2000s
  • The possibility of a more deliberate process at play in the withdrawal of the state from areas of life with which it is no longer concerned, associated with "localism".

The research section for this special report is based on a selection of academic studies which have been explored and summarised by Research in Practice (, part of the Dartington Hall Trust.

This article is part of CYP Now's special report on preventing youth offending. Click here for more

Further reading

Preventing Youth Offending Briefings: Realising Ambition Publishes its Third and Fourth Programme Insights

Looked After Children and Offending: Reducing Risk and Promoting Resilience, Tact, Centre for Research for the Child and Family and University of East Anglia, 2012

Charlie Taylor's Youth Justice Interim Review, MoJ, 2016

A Model of Diversion From the Youth Justice System. International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice; K Haines, S Case, K Davies, A Charles, 2013

Assessing Young People in Police Custody: An Examination of the Operation of Triage Schemes. Institute for Criminal Policy Research, Home Office, 2012

Turning Young Lives Around: How Health and Justice Services Can Respond to Children With Mental Health Problems and Learning Disabilities Who Offend. ?R Newman, Prison Reform Trust, 2012

Youth Restorative Disposal Process Evaluation. A Rix, K Skidmore, R Self, T Holt, S Raybould, Youth Justice Board, 2011

No-one knows: Offenders with learning difficulties and learning disabilities. N Loucks, Prison Reform Trust, 2007

Resources by Research in Practice

Understanding Adolescence Frontline briefing

Risk-Taking Adolescents and Child Protection Frontline Briefing

That Difficult Age: Developing a More Effective Response to Risks in Adolescence Evidence scope

Promoting Resilience in Children, Young People and Families Frontline Briefing

Voice of the Child Evidence Review

Communicating With Children and Young People With Developmental Delay, Communication Difficulties and Disabilities Frontline Briefing

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