Disaggregating the High-Risk Youth Category: Toward a Definition of Proven-Risk Youth

André J. Norman
StreetGangs.com
June 1, 2005, date posted, Originally written in 20031

In the fields of juvenile justice policy and programming, there are certain terms that are used to describe target populations. In terms of youth who are prone to illegal and illicit acts, the two terms that are most commonly used are at-risk youth and high-risk youth. The former term is generally associated with youth who come from lower-income, urban, single-mother backgrounds. High-risk youth is a label used to categorize and describe youth who share the following characteristics:

They are from poor families and communities; are (usually) high school dropouts, homeless or young parents; they are unemployed or underemployed; and they are involved with or transitioning from the child welfare or juvenile justice systems. Youth from minority groups are disproportionately represented in these categories.(2)

The problem with this definition is that it tends not to disaggregate the range of crimes that lead the youth into the juvenile justice system. There are insufficient distinctions made with respect to the types of youth that fall within them. The category high-risk youth includes the young person who has engaged in serious criminal and violent behavior as well as those who have engaged in lower-level offenses that may not necessarily include violence.

What is at stake with such categorizations? Incorrect sorting of these populations has implications for policy and programming. Those interventions that work well for certain types of youth who have been labeled as at-risk or high-risk are not as effective for the more violent youth who are incorrectly placed in these two categories. Poor sorting has a direct affect on these youth who are in desperate need of properly designed interventions.

What I propose is that another category be created that better sorts the youth who are classified as high-risk. The term proven risk encompasses the most violent youth who have been placed in the high-risk category. There are specific criteria that define proven-risk youth. They share the same characteristics as youth who are in the at-risk and high-risk categories. What distinguishes proven-risk youth from these other two types is that: they are gang-involved; frequently use drugs; have an incarcerated sibling and/or parent; and have been incarcerated before. Moreover, they have been convicted in court for having committed the following crimes:

  • gun possession
  • armed robbery
  • aggravated rape
  • murder
  • attempted murder
  • armed home invasion
  • serious assault against staff and/or another inmate while incarcerated
  • escape or attempted escape involving a serious assault on staff

By better defining the types of youth who require intervention, policymakers, foundations, and youth-oriented non-profit organizations can better deploy their resources in ways that will be more likely to make a positive difference in the lives of youth who fall into the proven-risk youth category.

1 © 2005. Do not cite or circulate without the written permission of the author.

2 “Serving High-Risk Youth: Lessons from Research and Programming,” Public/Private Ventures, September 2002, p. 2.

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