A risk factor is defined as a factor that predicts an increased risk of offending. For example, children who experience poor parental supervision have an increased risk of committing offences later on. Since risk factors are defined by their ability to predict later offending, it follows that longitudinal data are required to discover them. Protective factors are also important but there is not space to review them here. They are defined as factors that predict a low risk of offending or that counteract risk factors.
An obvious problem exists in that it is not clear how far any risk factor is causally linked to offending. The best way of establishing this is to carry out a prevention experiment tackling that risk factor, preferably in a randomized experiment because the random assignment of people to conditions in principle controls for all other influences on offending. If a prevention experiment is carried out in which parental supervision is improved, and if offending is reduced as a consequence, this is powerful evidence that the risk factor of parental supervision truly had a causal effect on offending. Thus, risk-focused prevention can lead to important advances in knowledge about the fundamental causes of offending.
Because of the difficulty of establishing causal effects of factors that vary only between individuals (e.g. gender and ethnicity), and because such factors have no practical implications for prevention (for example, it is not practicable to change males into females), unchanging variables will not be reviewed here. In any case, their effects on offending are usually explained by reference to other, modifiable, factors. For example, gender differences in offending have been explained on the basis of different socialization methods used by parents with boys and girls, or different opportunities for offending of men and women. Similarly, risk factors that are or might be measuring the same underlying construct as delinquency (e.g. physical aggression) will not be reviewed; the focus is on risk factors that might have causal effects. Because of limitations of space, biological factors are not reviewed,(7) nor are additive, interactive, independent, or sequential effects of risk factors, although these are important issues.
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