At-Risk Youth Essay

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The definition of and interventions for at-risk youth have been significant issues in social policy discourse and criminal justice since the late 20th century. The term is used in this context to describe expert and scientific ways in which current and future risks, including health, educational, and criminal risks, are used to define youth who are “at-risk.” Multiple perceptions and understanding of at-risk youth are built up by the academic frames and policy knowledge that is underpinned itself by a variety of theoretical approaches. The term’s use and categorization across a range of countries and policy areas indicates that its meaning is often highly contested by policy actors.

Such variation and dispute over meaning can in part be explained by the dynamics of youth change, the limitation of available statistics, and the perceptions of policy makers, criminal and juvenile justice practitioners (e.g. judges, lawyers, police, youth workers, and court workers), and social welfare practitioners (e.g. teachers, psychologists, social workers, and other health professionals). Further, the representation and participation of young people in public policy debate remains a problem. The macro effects of social inequality and political invisibility mean that broad youth issues across a range of policy areas such as social well-being, health, and criminal justice are either ignored or poorly funded. These issues can include youth homelessness and poverty, youth suicide, under/unemployment, gender and sexuality, health and mental health, substance abuse, and addiction issues.

Risk factors for young people are commonly balanced or counter posed in program and policy with protective factors. It is useful to identify risks along a continuum for young people from minimal and remote risk (e.g., enhanced by a positive and stable family life among a range of possible protective factors) to high and imminent risk (e.g., gang-related activity and violence, poverty and homelessness, negative and unstable social supports, among a range of possible risk factors). Such identification, categorization, and surveillance measures while alerting stakeholders to social and personal problems among such youth also construct youth crime in particular ways that usually represent a bias in the visibility of such powerless groups. At-risk groups such as African Americans, indigenous communities, and other nonwhite minorities are also commonly victims of crimes of the state and the powerful with histories of forced labor and family separations, genocides and war crimes in their backgrounds. At-risk young people are usually not given a voice in policy debate as either offenders or victims.

Categorization of young people into at-risk categories has been questioned in critical criminology as stigmatizing and creating negative stereotypes. This category politics is often seen as objectifying and labeling “kinds” of people into generalist categories such as “the idle poor” or “teen pregnancy” that help frame moral arbitrariness and judgments in crime and welfare policy. At-risk youth, more so than youth in general, are often seen as a local and national security concern for society in that they have greater negative public visibility. This visibility is often enhanced by negative media and government reporting about youth in places such as on the streets, in shopping malls, and through official crime and surveillance statistics that tend to identify and “capture” youth offending or victimization.

Such official knowledge deployed with terms such as “evidence-based” practice and policy is focused on the least powerful among young people and may be a case of over monitoring without comparison of the privileges other youth or adults enjoy. If at-risk youth lack such privileges or rights they need interventions that reinstate them as citizens. At-risk youth are heavily oppressed by intersections of class, race, and gender and as such are commonly affected by deep poverty and threatened with criminalization with public labels of delinquency, dangerousness, and deviance.

Criminology, sociology, and developmental psychology approaches help contextualize at-risk youth in more substantial ways than official and public labels. One useful interdisciplinary approach is systems and social ecology theory that locates personal lives and social problems within broader social systems of micro (e.g., behavior and social interaction), meso (e.g., family, community, and organizations) and macro (e.g., economy and societal processes) levels. In this systems approach, phenomena such as juvenile offending and violent crime can be located within social cause and effect notions from the individual and family level through to organizational and institutional systems.

Scholars in the United States have discussed the social position of children and youth in the context of a “risk society” in which the powerless and most vulnerable face the greatest burden as both victims and sometimes perpetrators of significant sociocriminal risks. Poverty, poor health, and lack of educational opportunities have all become significant risk factors for young people. In the United States in 2000, one in three children were expected to live in poverty sometime during their childhood. Juvenile crime and criminality risks have also increased, according to the official data. From 1996 to 2007, there were 39 instances of school shootings, and issues such as male and female gang involvement remain a useful predictor of teenage crime and violence.

National data provides broad understanding of current and future behavioral health risk among youth, which in themselves also interrelate with poverty, social exclusion, and possible crime related activities. Seeing these as part of the picture of the interrelated levels of the social system enables a more holistic understanding of becoming or being identified as at-risk youth. A 2011 U.S. risk behavior survey of 15,425 youth (aged 10 to 24) indicates several areas of risk behavior leading to the category “at-risk.” These behaviors can cause emotional, psychological, and physical self-harm or harm to others and possibly death:

  • Injuries and violence (nearly 33 percent texted or e-mailed while driving; 33 percent had been in a physical fight, 20 percent had been bullied on school property, and 8 percent had attempted suicide)
  • Tobacco (around 24 percent used tobacco and 18 percent of high school student had smoked in the last 30 days).
  • Alcohol and other drug use (e.g., nearly 39 percent had drunk alcohol and 21 percent had used marijuana).
  • Sexual behavior that contributes to unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and HIV (44 percent had sexual intercourse in the last three months with only 60 percent of these using a condom).
  • Unhealthy diet (5 percent had not eaten fruit or drunk fruit juice in the last seven days and 6 percent had not eaten vegetables)
  • Physical inactivity (31 percent had played video or computer games for three or more hours on an average day).

This data shows how widespread and numerous health and possibly criminalizing risks are for young people, with at-risk youth at one end of the risk continuum being the most vulnerable in the broader youth population. These health and associated risks are increasingly visible at a global level. Sexual health, unhealthy diet, and vitamin rich food shortages, for example, remain significant problems for young people’s well-being.

Across professional and program interventions the term at-risk denotes both biopsychosocial explanations for risk behavior as well as possible future negative consequences for those at-risk and their informal social supports such as family members. Being at-risk accordingly indicates an absence of intervention and may require positive redress through effective program interventions based in juvenile justice reform, educational programs, and crime prevention and health prevention initiatives. Some of these interventions include boot camps, family therapy programs, and school-based awareness and prevention programs.

With varying degrees of effectiveness, there are also a range of restorative juvenile justice programs for victim-offender mediation and reconciliation across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. Some of these are specifically targeted for at-risk indigenous and nonwhite youth who are heavily represented in the youth and criminal justice systems. This also raises questions about politics and processes in evaluation that are used to gauge effectiveness of at-risk youth programs. For example, the harsher disciplinary forms of boot camp experiences for turning youth away from crime, violence, harm, and self-destructive activities are generally ineffective in outcome. The media have promoted such disciplinary boot camps through reality TV shows, and there has grown a trend in public opinion that supports harshly punishing juvenile offenders and those in associated at-risk categories. Good practice in restorative justice and prosocial youth programs comes about from independent and thoroughly researched processes and outcomes for such programs.

Critical and feminist criminology encourages an analysis that takes the intersection of class, race, gender, disability, sexuality, and location as significant in the life course of young people and as possible social reasons why they are criminalized and/or engage in criminal activity. At-risk youth in particular can have high representation of cognitive and emotional forms of intellectual disability. This raises ethical and judicial questions about their competency in criminal justice processes. Are at-risk youth categories competent to stand trial? How are young people’s rights maintained in such processes? How and why are young people responsible for a crime or illegality? Are at-risk categories to be treated by the criminal justice and juvenile justice systems in the same way as adults or youth in general? Questions about what constitutes a responsible level of emotional and cognitive development to justify distinctions between youth and adult criminality also raise issues around age-related sociolegal categorization. This includes questions about the age of criminal responsibility and arrest, youth bail and possible wrongful imprisonment, and the detention of at-risk young people across different jurisdictions and countries.


  1. Arrigo, Bruce A. Criminal Behavior. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2006.
  2. Barak, G., P. Leighton, and J. Flavin. Class, Race, Gender and Crime. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010.
  3. Good, B. and D. Neyland, eds. New Directions in Surveillance and Privacy. Devon, UK: Willan, 2009.
  4. McLaughlin, E. and T. Newburn, eds. The Sage Handbook of Criminological Theory. London, Sage, 2010.
  5. McWhirter, J. J., B. T. McWhirter, E. H. McWhirter, and R. J. McWhirter. At Risk Youth. 4th ed. Belmont, CA: Thompson Higher Education, 2007.
  6. Munchie, J. Youth and Crime. 2nd ed. London: Sage, 2004.
  7. United States Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS) Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance—United States, 2011. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, v.61/4 (2012).

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