Review of the Roots of Youth Violence: Literature Reviews

Volume 5

Preventing Youth Crime and Violence: A Review of the Literature

A Report Prepared for the Review of the Roots of Youth Violence

Professor Scot Wortley
James Dorion
Zachary Levinsky
Akwasi Owusu-Bempah
Lysandra Marshall
Rhea Adhopia
Kanika Samuels
Steve Cook
Stephanie Roberts
Amanda Boyce

Centre of Criminology, University of Toronto


Youth crime and violence are pressing issues in Ontario. As a result, government officials, criminal justice professionals, academics and members of the general public are all interested in identifying effective strategies that will help prevent or significantly reduce serious criminal activity. Unfortunately, there is still considerable debate with respect to what strategies are the most effective and thus considerable debate surrounding how governments should be spending taxpayers’ money with respect to crime prevention programming. Many politicians, law enforcement experts and individuals from the wider community sincerely believe that the road to crime prevention lies through tougher laws, harsher punishments and increased spending on policing. On the other hand, a growing number of academics, mental health professionals, social workers and community activists feel that youth crime and violence can only be prevented through increased spending on crime prevention and community development programs. Indeed, some scholars, including Irvin Waller from the University of Ottawa, have argued that government resources need to be gradually diverted from law enforcement and corrections efforts into an effective crime prevention strategy (see Waller, 2006). The purpose of this report is to review the research literature that will help use address this debate in an informed manner.

Our review of government records, community reports, and the academic literature uncovered thousands of different programs, strategies, and initiatives that all claim to prevent youth violence. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these programs have not been subject to rigorous, scientific evaluation. Sadly, this is particularly true of programs that have been implemented in Canada. Under such circumstances, it is rather difficult to distinguish between programs “that work” when it comes to reducing violent behaviour, programs that are ineffective and programs that may actually have a negative impact. Clearly, proper evaluation is crucial for the development of an effective, evidence-based strategy to reduce youth violence. Fortunately, although many programs have yet to be properly evaluated, there is a growing international literature on effective crime prevention techniques. In this section we highlight major findings from this literature in order to identify the types of programs that might be useful in reducing youth violence in this province.

A Note on Program Evaluation

The discussion in this report is based on an extensive review of government reports and the peer-reviewed academic literature on crime prevention. As such we focus primarily on programs that have been evaluated with the highest standards of scientific rigour. However, programs that have not been evaluated — or have only been subject to poor-quality evaluations — are sometimes included in our discussion. It should be noted that we do not argue that unevaluated — or under-evaluated programs — are ineffective. We do maintain, however, that it is virtually impossible to draw firm, empirically based conclusions about the effectiveness of programs that have not been subject to proper evaluation. Thus, in the following pages, any strong conclusions we make about effective or ineffective programs tend to be based on high quality research.

In order for an evaluation study to be considered “high quality,” the following conditions typically have to be met:

Most of the programs discussed in this report have been subject to relatively high-quality evaluations that employed most – if not all – of the methodological criteria described above. Using the same high standards as number of prestigious crime prevention organizations (the Centre for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado; the National Crime Prevention Centre; the United States Surgeon General; the United States Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention; the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the United States Department of Health and Human Resources; the National Institute of Justice, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, etc.), we classified programs into three main categories:

  1. Proven (Model) Programs: Prevention programs that have been proven effective through numerous high-quality evaluations in different communities or settings. As established by the published literature, these programs have either directly or indirectly reduced violent or aggressive behaviour in youthful populations.
  2. Promising Programs: Prevention programs that have been subject to limited evaluation and have produced some positive results. However, unlike proven programs, promising programs may not have been evaluated using the most rigorous scientific standards, they may have produced inconsistent results, or they may not have been replicated in different types of communities. Such programs are thus endorsed with caution until they have been more fully evaluated.
  3. Ineffective Programs: Ineffective programs or strategies have been subject to high-quality evaluations. However, evaluation results indicate that these programs have either no impact or a negative impact on violent behaviour and youth crime.

Outline of the Report

Any cursory review of the academic literature will quickly reveal that crime prevention programs and strategies come in a wide variety of different categories. Tough policing practices, correctional treatment regimes, adult mentoring strategies, and arts and recreational initiatives are some examples. Thus, in the following pages, we review the evaluation literature by type of crime prevention program or approach. To begin with, Chapter Two reviews research related to aggressive policing strategies including increased police patrols, hotspot policing, and special guns and gangs units. Chapter Three, on the other hand, reviews the literature on community policing approaches to crime prevention. Chapter Four reviews the literature on deterrence strategies – including harsh punishments for young offenders. In Chapter Five, we briefly discuss the extensive literature on rehabilitation or treatment programs for convicted offenders. The next sections of the report deal with approaches that lie outside of the criminal justice system. Chapter 6, for example, focuses on early childhood development strategies for preventing crime and violence in adolescence and adulthood. Chapter 7 examines school-based strategies for crime prevention and Chapter 8 reviews the literature on youth employment programs. Chapter 9 investigates the effectiveness of various youth mentoring strategies. Chapters 10 and 11 focus on sports and arts and recreation initiatives respectively. Finally, Chapter 12 provides a review of general community development strategies for crime prevention. The report concludes with a summary of major findings and a call for a case management approach to program management.


Waller, Irving. (2006). Less Law, More Order. Westport, CT: Praeger.

1 Due to pressures to “prove” effectiveness, program staff may want to select subjects they feel will benefit from the program and exclude those they feel are likely to fail.


Volume 1. Findings, Analysis and Conclusions

Volume 2. Executive Summary

Volume 3. Community Perspectives Report

Volume 4. Research Papers

Volume 5. Literature Reviews