Two Early Intervention Targets for Juvenile Recidivism: Prior Victimization and Substance Use

Prior victimization significantly predicted whether a youth had future contact with the juvenile or adult criminal justice system, even while considering other factors, such as risk level and youth characteristics. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Law and Human Behavior. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Law and Human Behavior | 2018, Vol. 42, No. 6, 558-569

The Impact of Victimization and Mental Health Symptoms on Recidivism for Early System-Involved Juvenile Offenders


Lindsey E. Wylie, University of Nebraska Omaha
Katrina A. Rufino, University of Houston–Downtown and The Menninger Clinic, Baylor College of Medicine


Although research has linked mental health symptoms and prior victimization to recidivism for youth on probation or in detention, little attention has been given to these risk factors for early system-involved youth. We conducted a survival/hazard model to estimate the impact of official records of abuse/neglect, crime victimization, and mental health issues (mood, anxiety, disruptive, and substance use disorders) on recidivism in a sample of 2,792 youth in a large Midwestern diversion program. Results indicated that youth with official records of abuse/neglect, person crime victimization, and property crime victimization were more likely to recidivate sooner than those without these victimization experiences (hazard ratio: 1.37, 1.42, and 1.52, respectively). Findings from the present study also demonstrated that substance use disorder was the only mental health cluster that predicted quicker time to recidivism. As one of the earliest points of entry into the juvenile justice system, diversion programs are in a unique position to address trauma from multiple types of victimization and adapt diversion programming to be responsive to each juvenile’s mental health needs.


juvenile recidivism, juvenile diversion, mental health, victimization

Summary of the Research

“In 2016, there were approximately 856,130 juvenile arrests in the United States—many for nonviolent offenses such as larceny–theft, other assaults, drug abuse violations, liquor law violations, vandalism, disorderly conduct, and curfew/loitering. As such, the juvenile justice system is often tasked with how to address youth who commit less serious offenses. One approach is to divert them away from formal juvenile justice system involvement through diversion programs. As the gateway to the juvenile justice system, diversion programs are in a unique position to address the needs of early system-involved youth, including needs related to victimization and mental health symptoms, to reduce future involvement in the juvenile or adult criminal justice system” (p. 558).

“Developmental models of antisocial behavior propose that ‘delinquency is marked by a reliable developmental sequence of experiences,’ in which childhood experiences and social environment put children at risk for social maladjustment and criminal behavior. Specifically, studies find that experiences with victimization, broadly defined as maltreatment, adverse childhood experiences, and general crime victimization, are related to mental health issues and that both victimization and mental health issues are related to juvenile justice involvement. Although the association of victimization and mental health symptoms within juvenile justice populations are well-documented, especially within samples of serious juvenile offenders (e.g., adjudicated or incarcerated), fewer studies have examined these risk factors in a sample of early system-involved youth” (p. 558).

“The present study utilized a sample of early system-involved youth referred to a juvenile diversion program in a large Midwestern city. The purpose of this study was to examine reoffending for youth with reported experiences of victimization, as well as mental health symptoms at the time of diversion intake. Although research has examined the recidivism trajectory of youth at the deeper end of the juvenile justice system, fewer studies have linked victimization and mental health problems to recidivism in a sample of early system-involved youth. Juveniles in the diversion program are typically first-time offenders referred because of minor offenses (e.g., shoplifting, possession of marijuana, status offenses) and assessed as low to moderate risk. The present research contributes
to the larger body of literature by examining whether the association between victimization, mental health problems, and recidivism is similar for early system-involved youth to better inform diversion efforts. Furthermore, the present study extends prior research by including a broader measure of victimization that includes abuse/neglect, sexual assault, property crime, and person crimes that have been reported to law enforcement” (p. 560).

“In both the bivariate comparisons and multivariate model examining time to recidivism, abuse/neglect and person crime victimization were related to both discharge from diversion and recidivism (property offense victimization was only related to recidivism). It is unclear from this data whether victimization in these types of incidents directly relates to difficulties in completing diversion or future reoffending, or whether these rates are an artifact of exposure to system involvement because of victimization. Moreover, the relationship between being the victim of a person or property crime and recidivism, could be the product of delinquent peers or engaging in delinquent lifestyles” (p. 565).

“Our results demonstrate that two thirds of these early system-involved juveniles experience one or more mental health symptoms, with one in five reporting substance use or mood symptoms, one in three reporting anxiety symptoms, and almost half reporting disruptive disorder symptoms. In comparing these proportions to research using the same mental health assessment tool involving juveniles referred to probation and incarcerated juveniles, it appears that early system-involved juveniles may experience similar mental health symptoms as deeper end justice-involved juveniles. In examining the symptom clusters specifically, a higher proportion of our sample endorsed anxiety, mood, and disruptive symptoms, but fewer endorsed substance use symptoms when compared to McReynolds et al. (2010) and Wasserman et al. (2002). Even though this sample differed from these previous studies in specific proportions, across all studies, disruptive disorders are most common among justice-involved youth and mood disorders are least common. As such, there may be few differences between early justice-involved juveniles and later justice involved juveniles in terms of how mental health symptoms are presented” (p. 566).

“Furthermore, the results of the present study show the impact of victimization and mental health on early justice-involved youth. In support of the first hypothesis, juveniles with a history of victimization recidivated sooner than juveniles without a history of victimization. Although previous literature on mental health and recidivism in juvenile justice is mixed, the bivariate analyses and multivariate analyses demonstrated that participants endorsing substance use were more likely to recidivate, which is supported by previous research. The bivariate comparisons also found that those who endorsed the mood disorder symptoms were less likely to recidivate, which differs from studies that have not found a significant relationship between mood disorders and recidivism. One
possibility is the mood cluster acts as a protective factor against recidivism, as juveniles who are feeling depressed are less likely to engage in social activities with peers, where they would be more likely to encounter peer pressure or engage in risky shift behaviors. Furthermore, juveniles who are feeling depressed may be experiencing anhedonia and a lack of energy” (p. 566-567).

“As partially hypothesized, however, once the mental health clusters were included in the multivariate model with demographic variables, the modified risk level score, and victimization, only the substance use mental health cluster predicted time to recidivism, while the mood mental health clusters did not. Although substance use remained a significant predictor of time to recidivism even while controlling for criminogenic risk factors, youth in this sample with mental health issues did exhibit higher criminogenic risk and needs profiles as measured with the YLS/CMI compared with those without mental health issues as previous research has indicated” (p. 567)

Translating Research into Practice

“The results of the current study demonstrate the importance of addressing mental health concerns in juvenile diversion programs, which are one of the first points that youth may touch in the juvenile justice system. While research guided by the Risk-Needs- Responsivity model has generally found that only treating mental health issues is mostly ineffective, research has demonstrated that addressing mental health issues and criminogenic needs can be effective because it adheres to the responsivity principle. The data from this study demonstrate there is a relationship between mental health needs and discharge reason—namely, that youth endorsing substance use and disruptive disorders were less likely to successfully complete the diversion program. Perhaps by specifically attending to these mental health needs, diversion programs can adapt programming for youth with these issues, which may contribute to more positive outcomes such as successful completion of the program and reduced recidivism” (p. 567).

“Juvenile diversion programs embrace the mission of the juvenile justice system, namely that youth can be rehabilitated by linking them to services and that juveniles who commit less serious offenses should not be formally processed through ‘the system.’ This study provides preliminary evidence for some of the risk factors of juveniles most likely to recidivate after being connected to those services and diverted from the system. The three victimization type variables were the strongest predictors of recidivism, even while controlling for risk level and other juvenile characteristics. As such, programs should specifically focus on trauma informed programming that addresses the form of victimization a youth has experienced. Moreover, there is a need for early intervention tailored to the needs of abused, neglected, and victimized youths before they interact with the justice system or when they first enter the juvenile justice system. Early interventions should provide victimized youth with resources to increase resilience and teach positive and proactive coping strategies to minimize the effects that victimization may have on mental health functioning, and subsequent justice involvement” (p. 567-568).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“Overall, the most frequent reported type of victimization was person crimes, followed by abuse/neglect and property offenses, with fewer reported incidents of sexual assault. We attempted to compare the rates of victimization in this sample to other studies, however because victimization has been operationalized in multiple ways, comparisons were not meaningful. Future research should compare whether early system-involved youth experience similar rates of victimization using official records and varying types of victimization to adjudicated and/or detained youth” (p. 565).

“Although previous research has consistently found various types of victimization do predict recidivism, better understanding how the types of victimization differ by sample characteristics and how different types of victimization impact recidivism warrants further investigation. The victimization variable was limited by using official law enforcement reports, which was likely an underestimation of victimization incidents in general. Official reports of victimization may also result in an underestimation of certain types of victimization that go unreported to law enforcement (e.g., child abuse/neglect, mutual assault). Future research may consider utilizing a range of victimization measures, including self-report data and official law enforcement records. Finally, although we know that victimization and mental health symptoms are related to recidivism, at least in bivariate comparisons, our data does not explain why these risk factors contribute to recidivism. Researchers may consider specifically testing theoretical frameworks aimed at measuring for the underlying relationships between victimization, mental illness, and reoffense” (p. 567).

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Authored by Amanda Beltrani

Amanda Beltrani is a current doctoral student at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her professional interests include forensic assessments, professional decision making, and cognitive biases.

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