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Review of the Roots of Youth Violence

Volume 1, Chapter 3:

The Immediate Risk Factors for Violence Involving Youth


As noted in Chapter 1, the Premier asked us to analyze the roots of violence involving youth and to provide advice on the best ways for his government to move forward to address those roots. This required that we come to an understanding of the terms “roots,” “youth” and “violence” in the specific context of our assignment. We will discuss violence involving youth in some detail in Chapter 5; here, we outline our approach to the term “roots” — the core of the assignment given to us by the Premier.

As we began to consider the issue of roots, we were struck immediately by the vast amount of academic literature, professional commentary and public discourse in this field. Innumerable research projects, thousands of articles, hundreds of books, scores of schools of thought, many fully developed theories and, around the world, probably almost-weekly conferences all grapple with the sources, causation and prevention of crime. Media coverage and public opinion are abundant and pervasive. Narrowing the topic to crimes of violence involving youth does little to narrow the range of available information, nor the volume of competing ideas and approaches being advanced.

We were also struck by the large number of dedicated individuals, groups and agencies who work on a daily basis to address the conditions that can give rise to crime, along with those who work specifically in the fields of crime prevention, detection or deterrence. Sometimes, they work within the context of approaches that have been substantiated by research; other times they forge new approaches or follow established paths that lack a foundation in research or evaluation. Regardless, their good faith and commitment, and the value of their experience and ideas, are immediately evident to anyone entering this field. Their views, along with the research findings, have informed much of what we say in this analysis.

It is, of course, impossible to reconcile all of the competing views and theories. We have, nonetheless, been able to find common themes underlying competing theories, and common arguments within competing approaches. We have then drawn on these, and our own consultations, experience and judgment, in developing our approach to identifying the roots of violence involving youth. While we expect disagreement from some specialists and from those with long-entrenched positions on the issues, we are confident that our approach is well supported and appropriate for Ontario at this juncture.

Our Approach

In outlining our approach, it is important to emphasize that we were asked to address violence involving youth, not youth crime in general. Based on the trends and impacts identified in Chapter 5, our primary focus within this mandate is on finding the roots of the kind of violence that causes serious injuries or death or the fear of such. While we will, of course, address other forms of violence, including bullying, we believe that the very serious violence is different from other crime. It involves far fewer youth, yet raises far deeper concerns. This is the case whether the concerns are about the specific youth involved in this violence, its impacts on communities or what it portends for our society as a whole.

This difference and these concerns arise from the state of mind that puts a young person on the path to serious violence. Many youth will commit an offence of some kind as they grow up, including quite a few who will get into fights and commit minor assaults. However, very few commit the kind of serious violence about which we are most concerned. It is the factors that put some youth on the path towards this kind of violence that we must identify and understand if we are to fulfil our mandate.

To understand why we need to focus on those factors, we need to look beyond the relatively small number of youth who are involved in serious violence. We must also be very concerned about the larger number of youth in our schools and on our streets with a state of mind, a view of the world around them, and often a weapon, which put them at immediate risk of involvement in serious violence.

It takes a certain desperation for a young person to walk our streets with a gun. The sense of nothing to lose and no way out that roils within such youth creates an ever-present danger. That danger arises from the impulsiveness of youth and the lack of foresight with which they often act. The unfortunate — and often tragic — reality is that it will often take very little by way of provocation or incentive to trigger that latent violence once we have let the immediate risk factors develop. This most often puts other youth in danger’s way, but can do the same for any of us, because it creates a reality in which violence is unpredictable — unpredictable in location, unpredictable in cause and unpredictable in consequences.

This is what lies at the heart of what often seems like inexplicable violence and of the devastating community impacts we have set out in Chapter 5. It is why we need to be deeply concerned about the present state of affairs in Ontario. It is why we must identify the immediate risk factors for violence that exist within some youth, and then identify and address the conditions that give rise to them.

What then are the immediate risk factors — the ones that create that state of desperation and put a youth in the immediate path of violence? While no set of factors can explain all violence, we are persuaded that youth are most likely to be at immediate risk of involvement in serious violence if they:

Our experience and our work on this review make it clear to us that most youth who feel connected to and engaged with the broader society, and who feel valued and safe and see a positive future for themselves in it, will not experience these conditions and will not commit serious violence. Indeed, many of the youth who meet the above descriptors will also not do so, because no triggering event or circumstance will occur to unleash their feelings or because society manages to intervene in time. But when such a trigger does manifest itself before that intervention, as it all too often does, it is they who are far more likely to explode in a very harmful way.

We believe that starting from this understanding is important because it permits us to move from identifying the immediate risk factors for involvement in serious violence to analyzing the conditions in which they arise. And once we identify these conditions — the roots — strategies to address them can be put in place.

We note in this connection that many specialists use much longer lists of risk factors, which do not necessarily focus on identifying youth who are at immediate risk of involvement in serious violence. Our focus on that objective arises from our concern about the dangerous mindset we have described above, and its connection to the core of our mandate from the Premier. We fully agree that other risk factors are useful in identifying “at-risk” youth in general and in identifying intervention opportunities, strategies and programming.

To pick a particularly prominent one, we agree with those who point to associations with deviant peers as an important predictor, and often inciter, of violence involving youth. Indeed, many of the roots that trouble us are problematic precisely because they increase a youth’s association with those who are already deviant. But those associations are not roots; the roots are what often produced the deviant peers and made a particular youth susceptible to them.

For us, it is the roots — the conditions in which the immediate risk factors can grow and flourish — that require the urgent attention of the Premier and his government. Our report will accordingly focus on those matters. We will also provide advice on intervention strategies for youth who do have the immediate risk factors, but we firmly believe that intervention strategies alone cannot possibly address the issues we face in Ontario today.

If we have learned anything as a society in recent years, it is that we do not have the ability to identify all of these youth in time to try to apply preventive measures when they are nearing or have reached this dangerous state. Nor is it clear that we have the resources to provide the extremely intensive approaches that are necessary to try to address their condition, or that there is enough expertise to ensure that even timely and well-resourced interventions will always work. And even if we could intervene successfully, it is clear that if we do not address the roots, they will continue to supply a stream of replacements for those youth we do help overcome their condition.

The costs of failing to identify and address the roots are accordingly ongoing, tragic and high. These include the immeasurable cost of lost lives and serious injuries that result from violence involving youth, the cost of community fragmentation and immobilization, the cost of policing and the justice system and other interventions, and the cost to the broader social fabric of the province.

In our next chapter, we outline the most prevalent and pernicious of those roots, setting the stage for the approach we are proposing to the Premier. Before doing so, we provide a very brief synopsis of the academic literature on which we drew for this part of our report.

The Literature

To assist us in this part of our inquiry, we commissioned a review of the major theoretical perspectives on the root causes of crime. Included in Volume 5, this review offers a synthesis of, and commentary on, numerous published studies in this field. We commend it to those seeking a more detailed appreciation of the relevant theoretical work; for the purposes of this chapter, it will suffice to identify the best-known theories and a few of their key elements.

In the most general of terms, criminologists and other academics interested in crime tend to either start with a theory about a given condition (e.g., poor nutrition, a certain brain chemistry or certain family or social conditions), and then test whether it is a predictor of youth violence, or start with known offenders and seek to identify common characteristics in their backgrounds. Through this work, predictors and correlates can be, and have been, found in many domains, and have been collected into at least 14 distinct theoretical approaches or doctrines, many of which have their own sub-doctrines.

What struck us in our review of these doctrines was that many of them found that the studied condition or predictor often led to one of the immediate risk factors we have identified. And, at the same time, many of the conditions studied or identified are implicitly and often explicitly traced in the literature to the conditions we examine in our next chapter.

In the result, without claiming to have reconciled these deeply held theoretical constructs, nor indeed even to have attempted to do so, we take comfort from the fact that within most of them lie strong themes that support our emphasis on the immediate risk factors we have identified, and/or that trace the conditions their authors are concerned about to many of the same roots we believe the Premier must address.

We provide below a thumbnail sketch of these doctrines to illustrate the range of thinking in the academic world on these issues.

  1. Biosocial theory: This theory considers that certain biological anomalies or physical disabilities may make some individuals more prone to violence. These can stem from nutritional deficiencies, hormonal influences, allergies or exposure to environmental contaminants, or may arise from neurophysical conditions, such as fetal alcohol syndrome, brain dysfunction, injury or chemistry, genetics or evolution. According to many of these sub-theories, the studied condition leads to difficulties in controlling violent impulses when under stress and has its origins in circumstances often associated with poverty or dysfunctional families.

  2. Psychological theories: These theories look at how mental processes impact on propensities for violence. They look at the connections among learning, intelligence, personality and aggressive behaviour. In general, these theories often look to early negative family circumstances as sources of damaged egos or to the way certain negative behaviours are learned in families where aggression is common. They consider the impact of mental illness, although many note that conditions such as parental neglect, child abuse, victimization, racism and poverty are associated with violence as well as being a cause of mental illness.

  3. Rational choice theory: This theory holds that people freely choose their behaviour and are motivated by the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure. This perspective assumes that crime is a personal choice, the result of individual decision-making processes. It posits that offenders weigh the potential benefits and consequences of committing an offence and then make a rational choice on the basis of this evaluation. The central premise of this theory is that people are rational beings, whose behaviour can be controlled or modified by a fear of punishment.

    However, to the extent the research supports the rational nature of crime, it is confined primarily to instrumental crime, such as property and drug offences. There is some support in relation to violence, where youth use violence to protect themselves in situations when they feel they lack power.

    The assumption behind this theory, that offenders conduct a cost-benefit analysis before deciding to engage in crime, is not strongly supported by research. While some thought goes into offending, the planning tends to focus on the immediate events (e.g., the choice of which house to enter), not the long-term consequences of their actions (e.g., whether to commit a crime at all). Youth in particular do not routinely consider the long term; they tend to be impulsive and focus on the immediacy of the rewards associated with offending. Even if youth do consider the criminal justice consequences, most find them irrelevant as they believe it is unlikely they will be apprehended.

  4. Social disorganization theory: This theory postulates that crime is a function of neighbourhood dynamics and not necessarily a function of individuals within high-crime neighbourhoods. The core factor seems to be high population turnover, resulting from the undesirable status of certain communities. A number of studies have also supported the idea that economic deprivation may be an important influence on social disorganization. They propose that economic deprivation could lead to social disorganization, which in turn can lead to violence and crime.

    More recent analyses have argued that social disorganization can reduce social capital and collective efficacy, thereby increasing crime and violence rates. Social capital fosters trust and solidarity among residents, while collective efficacy relates to the belief that residents can effectively control the likelihood of undesirable behaviour within the neighbourhood.

    The overall theory is that in socially disorganized neighbourhoods, conventional institutions of social control, such as families, schools, churches and organizations, are weak and unable to regulate the behaviour of the neighbourhood’s residents. In essence, a neighbourhood characterized by social disorganization provides fertile soil for crime and delinquency in two ways: a lack of behavioural control mechanisms and the cultural transmission of delinquent values.

  5. Economic deprivation: There are several elements to this theory. One is that capitalism encourages the criminality of the poor by the misery and the inequality that it foists on them. Another is that inequality can reduce self-esteem and foster the development of a negative self-image, which in turn can lead to crime. Still another is that involvement in illicit activities not only provides short-term capital gains for those without other capital, but also bolsters self-image and feelings of social competence.

    Relative economic deprivation is another way to consider motivators of crime. Relative deprivation theories focus on the recognition of an individual’s wellbeing relative to others. This version brings a subjective assessment into the analysis. The recognition of relative deprivation can result in feelings of despair, frustration, grievance, injustice, low self-worth and anger and may be a powerful motivator of crime.

    Thus, economic deprivation is said to lead to violence as a means to relieve poverty or acquire goods that youth otherwise lack. It may also lead to violence by creating feelings of hopelessness and anger, which may lead to diffuse aggression. The potential for violence may be higher where economic deprivation is believed to be unjust, for example, where it is believed that one is economically deprived because of factors such as race.

  6. Strain theories: There are several versions of this theory, each arguing that strain creates pressures and incentives to engage in criminal coping as a response to the strain experienced. One version is that the disjunction between culturally ascribed goals, such as economic success, and the availability of legitimate means to attain such goals puts pressure on the cultural norms that dictate what means should be used to achieve the culturally prescribed goal. This takes place in societies that place an intense value on economic success.

    Another version links the pressures to secure monetary rewards with weak controls from noneconomic social institutions as a way of promoting criminal activity. This arises where the social institutions are subservient to the economic structure and therefore fail to provide alternative definitions of self-worth and achievement.

    Yet another approach looks more generally to any strain that is seen as unjust, is high in magnitude, associated with low social control and creates some incentive to engage in criminal coping. In this version, individuals experiencing strain may develop negative emotions, including anger, from the impact of adversity; resentment from unjust treatment by others; and depression or anxiety from blaming themselves for the stressful consequence. A last variant of this theory focuses on relative deprivation, outlined above.

    Overall, it is thought that strain can result from the desire for money, thrills or status; parental rejection; harsh, erratic or excessive discipline; child neglect; abuse; negative secondary school experiences; homelessness; abusive peers; criminal victimization; and experiences with prejudice and discrimination relating to characteristics such as race.

  7. Social learning theory: According to this theory, deviant and criminal conduct is learned and sustained through associations with family and peer networks. The theory revolves around differential association with people who commit criminal behaviour and espouse definitions favourable to it. Direct association or interaction with people who engage in certain kinds of behaviour can lead to similar behaviour as individuals engage in behaviour that they have previously witnessed in others. Related to this are the ways in which behaviours are reinforced by peer contacts. The research literature has consistently found that there is a strong relationship between childhood experiences of violence in the family and early childhood aggression and a more moderate relationship between these experiences and adolescent aggression. By contrast, peer influences appear to be more important in adolescence.

  8. The subculture of violence: This theory involves the role of social control processes in perpetuating subcultural violence. It suggests that criminal behaviour can be predicted by group norms that lead to instrumental use of violence for impression management and maintaining reputation. One element of this is the culture of honour, which some studies trace to socioeconomic marginalization and the resulting embracing of the code of the streets. This theory is part of a body of research that highlights various social processes ranging from how crime is learned and taught to how it emerges from social inequalities.

  9. Social learning, the media and violence: Some theories suggest that media violence leads to social learning of violent behaviour, while others suggest that entertainment is typically used to manage emotions and that those who are already aggressive actively seek out violent media content. The findings to date do not provide clear and consistent evidence that media violence causes aggressive and violent behaviour.

  10. Perceptions of injustice, crime and violence: This theory explores the possibility that perceptions of injustice may help explain race and class differences in criminal behaviour, including violence. It notes the widespread perceptions of bias in the justice system and argues that it leads to mistrust in criminal justice professionals. The perceived existence of unfair sanctions, combined with the absence of sanctions for race-based harms, reduces faith in the justice system, which in turn sets the stage for offending.

    This can play out through justifications for deviance that are seen as valid by the delinquent, but not by the legal system or society at large. If offenders believe that the system is unjust and that their chances of success are blocked by external forces such as racism or class interests, they may be less likely to trust officials and more likely to lose faith in the system and resort to crime. The perceived injustice essentially becomes a rationalization or justification for criminal behaviour.

    Another manifestation of this is when members of disadvantaged communities feel marginalized by the police and stop cooperating with them. They then rely on informal methods to address conflicts, which may lead to increases in violence. There is also a theory of defiance to explain the conditions under which punishment increases crime, based on legitimacy, social bond, shame and pride in the emotional response to sanctioning experiences. In short, when offenders experience sanctioning conduct as illegitimate, future defiance is provoked.

    This theory can be extended outside the criminal justice system to include how people feel they are treated by other systems. People who attribute their unemployment and poverty to outside forces can be more likely to engage in criminal activity than those who blame themselves. They do not perceive equal opportunity and can therefore become more involved in crime. These conditions and perceptions of inequality can lead youths to strike out violently in a display of resentment, bitterness and frustration. This is very similar to the strain theory, as perceptions of injustice can be viewed as stressors that can lead to delinquency as a coping mechanism.

  11. Social control theory: This theory assumes a relationship between delinquency and lower levels of social control. The overall idea is that crime occurs when social bonds are weakened or are not well-established. These bonds are based on an attachment to those both within and outside of the family; commitment to activities in which one has invested time and energy, such as educational or career goals; and involvement with activities that serve to further bond the individual to others and leave limited time for deviant activities. A key element of this theory is an attachment to parents, schools and others, with those who feel a stronger connection to their parents or schools being less likely to commit violent offences.

  12. Self-control theory: Self-control theory holds that people engage in crime because they lack self-control, require immediate gratification, cannot see the long-term consequences of their actions and have little empathy for others. In these ways, it is very similar to psychological theories of impulsivity. What is particular to self-control theory is that it holds that self-control must be established in early childhood. If a person does not have self-control by three or four years of age, this theory argues, they never will. It essentially assumes that offenders cannot change and therefore should be incapacitated to avoid future criminality.

  13. Integrated life course theories: This approach recognizes that crime is a complex multidimensional phenomenon with multiple causes. It integrates a variety of ecological, socialization, psychological, biological and economic factors into a coherent structure to explain the eventual behaviour of individuals. A constellation of factors in an individual’s life must be considered in order to understand his or her behaviour.

    One aspect of this theory looks at how children are socialized through their perceived opportunity for involvement in activities with others, their degree of such involvement, the skills they have to participate and the reinforcement they perceive from their involvement and interactions. When this is consistent, a social bond of attachment and commitment develops between the individual and the socializing unit. This then inhibits behaviour inconsistent with the behaviour practised by the socializing unit.

    A second theory specifies a causal pathway, in which strain leads to the weakening of social bonds with conventional others and institutions, leading to greater association with deviant peers and the subsequent learning of antisocial and delinquent values. Adolescents who live in socially disorganized neighbourhoods or who are improperly socialized have an increased risk of experiencing strain. The perceptions of strain can lead to the weakening of bonds with conventional groups, activities and norms. This can lead to the rejection of conventional values and encourage youth to seek out deviant peer groups. Such deviant associations then create the environment for anti-social learning and reinforcement of anti-social values and behaviour.

  14. Critical perspectives on violence: These theories either attempt to construct broader working definitions of violence or to draw linkages between various forms of official or legitimate violence and acts of violence at the interpersonal level. They are united in that they all emphasize the primacy of class relations when discussing the issue of crime and justice. They also tend to share a number of general assumptions, including that crime and the criminal law are shaped by the structure of the political economy, with particular emphasis on the importance of class, ethnicity, race and gender; and that the predominantly repressive approach of the state is generally ineffective as a response to the crime problem and perpetuates various forms of discrimination and inequitable justice.

    In particular, theorists with this specialty are concerned with the manner in which structural forces, cultural ideologies and social processes create, sustain and exacerbate social problems. These forces include militarism, racism, sexism, poverty, state and corporate violence, criminal injustice and war. This is in contrast to most of the theories dominating the social sciences literature, which have tried to explain crime by focusing on the abnormality of individuals, communities or cultures.

    Critical scholars have also begun to inject broader definitions of violence into the public discourse in an effort to move us beyond analyses where illegitimate force requires both a visible agent and an unwilling recipient. These formulations of what should be considered a crime or an act of violence have sought to encapsulate all forms of oppression and harm, including violence committed by corporate and government agents/agencies that is typically ignored. They argue that violence should include actions that inflict humiliation, stigmatization, material loss or social isolation, thus providing a space for devastating social forces like racism and social inequality to be viewed as forms of structural violence. Many have further argued that the law symbolizes an official and legitimate form of violence that is often used to create or reproduce racial and other social inequalities.


Bolstered by our reading of the literature we have synopsized above, and grounded in our consultations and experience, we believe that the search for the roots of violence involving youth must begin by identifying the immediate risk factors for such violence. With that as an organizing construct, we can then identify and address the conditions that can give rise to those factors. These can properly be seen as the roots of violence involving youth. If we understand these roots, we will then know what we have to try to address in order to prevent serious violence.

As we will set out in Chapter 9, a focus on addressing these roots will not only reduce the pool of youth who are on the verge of violence, but will also strengthen our youth, our families, our communities and our economy in ways that are not only highly beneficial in themselves, but that will positively reinforce each other to maximize the effectiveness of our work to address serious violence involving youth.

Accordingly, we will move in our next chapter to look at 10 areas that have been shown to lead to alienation, low self-esteem, a sense of oppression or victimization, a lack of voice or a lack of hope. It is our advice to the Premier that only by addressing those areas — the roots — in a coordinated, targeted, measured and monitored way will Ontario become an inclusive and therefore safe society.


Volume 1. Findings, Analysis and Conclusions

Volume 2. Executive Summary

Volume 3. Community Perspectives Report

Volume 4. Research Papers

Volume 5. Literature Reviews