Early Intervention and Juvenile Delinquency Prevention: Evidence from the Chicago Longitudinal Study

Article excerpt

This study investigated the role of an early educational intervention and child-, family-, peer-, and school-level predictors on court-reported juvenile delinquency. Data were provided from the Chicago Longitudinal Study, an ongoing investigation of the scholastic and social development of more than 1,500 low-income youths (93% of whom were African American). Preschool intervention was associated with reductions in the incidence, frequency, and severity of juvenile delinquency by age 18. Childhood classroom adjustment, special education placement for an emotional or behavioral disorder, and school mobility were also predictive of delinquency outcomes, as were gender and family and environmental risk status. Findings demonstrate the importance of early intervention and schooling factors in reducing delinquency and highlight the benefits of early intervention as one mechanism for delinquency prevention.

KEY WORDS: childhood risk factors; early intervention; juvenile delinquency


Juvenile delinquency is often treated through a myriad child-oriented programs and services that attempt to decrease the likelihood of recidivism. This treatment paradigm has been a consistent fixture of the juvenile justice system for more than 100 years, since the birth of the juvenile court in Cook County, Illinois, in 1899. Although the intent of the juvenile court has shifted over the years from policies focused on the best interests of the child to the best interests of the public, its goals have remained the same: to intervene in the trajectories of youths after they have already engaged in delinquent acts (Feld, 1999; Tonry, 1998). This strategy has been associated with high costs and relatively low effectiveness (Feld; Tonry).

In response to the treatment-oriented policies of juvenile crime control, primary prevention programs have been offered as an alternative approach to reducing negative developmental outcomes. Primary preventions have been defined as interventions that promote well-being and prevent future problems. Primary programs contrast with secondary and tertiary programs that are timed during or after a problem has manifested (Durlak, 1997). Early educational interventions, such as Head Start, have been devised as primary prevention programs to increase cognitive and academic functioning, and they have the potential to influence outcomes in other domains as well, including delinquency and crime (Barnett, 1995).


Through extant research, a framework for predicting juvenile delinquency has been developed and includes four categories of predictor variables: early antisocial behavior, individual-level attributes of the child, family attributes, and social characteristics of both the child and the family (Lipsey & Derzon, 1998). Focus on these predictor domains has greatly added to the literature, especially as they help to identify the developmental trajectories of youths. However, these four domains are limited in identifying the contribution of intervention to delinquency prediction.

Findings from the current study attempt to apply the structure of the existing prediction model and expand its scope to include both early intervention experiences and the early and later educational experiences that influence the social and behavioral development of youths. The inclusion of an intervention component in a large-scale longitudinal study is a unique contribution to the literature on the causes and correlates of juvenile delinquency. Evidence presented in this article uses an evaluation of a large-scale early educational intervention to examine the relation between program participation and lower rates of juvenile delinquency through age 18 in a high-risk low-income urban sample. This study also examined the contribution of child-developed abilities and social competence; family factors, including child maltreatment and parental involvement; and school-level risk and protective factors above and beyond preschool participation. …