Review of the Roots of Youth Violence: Literature Reviews

Volume 5


As documented by the chapters above, the academic literature on the root causes of youth violence is immense. Indeed, in this report, we have only touched upon a few of the many thousands of empirical studies that have attempted to identify the source of – and ultimately the solution to – violent behaviour. It is also clear that academics are not all on the same page. Indeed, heated debates continue between scholars who have adopted different theoretical or methodological approaches to the study of criminal behaviour. Psychologists and biologists, for example, approach the problem of violence from a very different direction than sociologists or anthropologists do. It can thus be very difficult to identify the “truth” when it comes to explaining violent crime – especially when the champions of radically different perspectives can all point to research evidence that apparently supports their claims. Nonetheless, criminologists have recently recognized that there may, in fact, be many different pathways to crime and violence, and that there may thus be elements of truth in all major theoretical perspectives. Most scholars now concede that theories that can successfully integrate elements from different explanations may be the most promising when it comes to identifying the true causes of youth crime.

Although controversy still exists, policy-makers often turn to the major theories of crime causation for ideas with respect to the development of effective crime prevention strategies. Unfortunately, confusion can ensue when they recognize that different theories have radically different – and often contradictory – policy implications. Psychology theories, for example, argue that we should spend our prevention dollars on early childhood development programs and the flexible delivery of mental health services that can meet individual needs. Social disorganization theories, by contrast, argue that governments should focus on social development and macro-level strategies that will improve economic conditions within disadvantaged communities. Similarly, rational choice theories argue that we need to increase the severity, swiftness and certainty of punishment in order to deter crime. By contrast, defiance theory, labelling theory and legitimacy theory all maintain that tough punishment can actually produce more crime and violence within a given society. Finally, social learning theories maintain that violent offenders can be treated or rehabilitated and eventually return to productive, law-abiding lives within the community. Self-control theory, by contrast, maintains that criminality is firmly established by age six, and holds, therefore, that rehabilitation efforts are futile. What theories should we believe? As discussed above, the purpose of this report was to review major theories that attempt to identify the root causes of violent crime. The identification of proven or promising crime prevention strategies, unfortunately, was not a priority of this document. However, the next report in this volume, “Youth Crime Prevention: A Review of the Evaluation Literature” (Wortley et al., 2008), provides a much more extensive discussion of crime prevention programs and strategies. In that companion report, a thorough effort is made to identify both proven and promising policy developments, as well as crime prevention strategies that have been shown to be ineffective.


Volume 1. Findings, Analysis and Conclusions

Volume 2. Executive Summary

Volume 3. Community Perspectives Report

Volume 4. Research Papers

Volume 5. Literature Reviews