Law-Related Education and Delinquency Prevention.
by Parrini, Michelle
Evidence from research/evaluation studies indicates that the principles
underlying law-related education (LRE) programs address the factors that
put youth at risk for delinquency. Although rigorous evaluations of LRE
are limited, what evidence exists suggests that LRE has potential to prevent
delinquency and problem behavior (Caliber 2002). This Digest discusses
(1) the connection between LRE and delinquency prevention, (2) the impact
of successful LRE on delinquency prevention, and (3) future directions
of LRE programs that address delinquency.
THE CONNECTION BETWEEN LRE AND DELINQUENCY PREVENTION.
Since the late 1960s, LRE has been implemented in schools and communities
across the country to teach youth about law and justice. Characteristics
of successful LRE programs are (1) a focus on essential LRE knowledge and
skills; (2) judicious, balanced selection and presentation of issues and
materials to ensure depth of analysis; (3) quantity of instruction sufficient
to achieve desired change; (4) use of interactive instructional strategies;
(5) opportunities for youth to interact constructively with resource persons;
(6) active involvement and support of administrators; and (7) support networks
for teachers/instructors (American Bar Association Special Committee on
Youth Education for Citizenship 1995). These general characteristics of
effective LRE are also applicable to programs designed to prevent delinquency
A variety of factors put youth at risk for delinquency and other problem
behaviors, such as:
* academic failure
* lack of commitment to school
* friends who engage in problem behaviors
* favorable attitude toward problem behavior
* early initiation of problem behavior
* low neighborhood attachment
These factors have been linked to substance abuse, delinquency, teen
pregnancy, school drop out, and violence (Caliber 2002).
Aspects of LRE that may protect youth against delinquency are (1) caring,
support, and bonding; (2) opportunities to participate in decision making
and planning and to hold positions of authority; (3) high expectations
and rewards for behavior; and (4) clear norms for healthy behaviors (Caliber
2002). These protective factors build youth developmental assets and promote
resiliency and successful adaptation to stressful events in the face of
Resiliency consists of four major elements:
* social competence (characterized by empathy, caring, communication
skills, and resistance skills)
* problem solving (characterized by critical reasoning skills, decision
making, and planning)
* autonomy (characterized by feelings of efficacy, high self-esteem,
sense of independence, and impulse control)
* sense of purpose and future success (characterized by planning and
goal setting, delaying gratification, and belief in the future).
Programs that reduce risk factors and enhance protective factors to
promote resiliency are most likely to prevent delinquency (Caliber 2002).
THE IMPACT OF SUCCESSFUL DELINQUENCY PREVENTION PROGRAMS.
Several evaluation/research studies provide evidence of positive effects
of LRE on delinquency prevention and youth development. This section summarizes
the results of these studies, which are described in detail in "The Promise
of LRE as Delinquency Prevention" by Caliber Associates, published in 2002
by the American Bar Association Division for Public Education. (This publication,
Technical Bulletin No. 19, can be obtained by writing to the ABA National
LRE Resource Center, 541 N. Fairbanks Court, Chicago, IL 60611-3314; by
e-mail at [email protected]; or by calling 312-988-5735.)
Through the use of interactive teaching strategies, LRE has potential
to increase academic achievement; promote more favorable attitudes toward
school, teachers, and schoolwork; and to inspire greater commitment to
school. Youth who are attached or bonded to school and teachers and show
increased academic performance are less likely to become delinquent. Program
evaluations have demonstrated a relationship between LRE and improvement
in classroom participation, enthusiasm for school and class, and regular
attendance - all potential indicators of commitment to school.
Youth who participate in LRE demonstrate significant gains in knowledge
of law and the legal process when compared to control groups of youth.
This finding, coupled with studies that found a positive relationship between
LRE and enhanced general academic performance, indicates that LRE is potentially
effective for addressing academic failure.
Programs that set high expectations for youth, reward achievement, and
help youth to develop positive beliefs and clear standards for healthy
behavior have been shown to reduce risk of violence and other delinquent
behaviors. These practices, allied with resiliency skills and positive
bonding with prosocial adults, also contribute indirectly to risk reduction
by reducing the chances of association with delinquent peers and, if initiated
in early grades, by reducing the likelihood of early initiation of delinquent
LRE effectively teaches belief in the rules governing behavior in the
classroom, school, and community by demonstrating that rules and laws merit
compliance when they are reasonable and fairly applied.
LRE instructors determine the rules and expectations of the LRE classroom
and instill belief in and commitment to them, often with youth participation.
Instructors set high expectations for behavior and reward achievement through
competitions and recognition ceremonies upon completion of most programs.
Further, introducing resource persons in positions of authority as positive
role models demonstrates healthy behaviors and enhances adherence to prosocial
standards and social norms among students.
LRE also builds resilience by developing problem solving, critical thinking,
and reasoning skills through challenging content and interactive strategies.
Interactive strategies help youth develop purpose, independence, and autonomy.
LRE's emphasis on young people as resources contributes to self-esteem
and positive outlook on the future and builds political tolerance and perceptions
of control of one's political freedom. Youth who participate in LRE learn
a number of prosocial skills, including conflict management. They also
demonstrate greater empathy for crime victims. LRE tends to improve several
life-skills areas, including identifying problems, generating options,
evaluating circumstances, reaching agreements and solutions, and communicating
Research on conflict resolution and violence prevention curricula has
shown that teaching youth problem solving skills, dispute resolution, and
other socially acceptable means for handling conflict can address the risk
factors of early initiation of problem behaviors and association with delinquent
peers. Some evaluations of LRE programs have shown a possible link between
LRE and reduction of early initiation of problem behaviors. Youth who participate
in LRE appear to have fewer disciplinary problems both in and out of school
and have low recidivism rates (Brown and DeLapp 1995).
Service learning and other hands-on field experiences provide opportunities
for youth to participate in prosocial activities using the skills that
they have learned for prosocial interaction. Such experiences also tend
to instill healthy beliefs and clear standards for youth.
Most LRE programs promote active citizenship among youth. Through hands-on
interactive strategies, use of resource persons, and action or field projects,
LRE students have opportunities to engage constructively with their surroundings
and to promote the public good (Caliber Associates 2002).
Although rigorous impact evaluations of LRE programs are limited, the
types of program strategies employed by LRE consistently appear to address
risk factors and to contribute positively to resiliency-protective factors
and delinquency prevention. "The Promise of Law-Related Education as Delinquency
Prevention" (Caliber Associates 2002) concludes that future program planning
and evaluation should more directly and pervasively address the links between
LRE and delinquency.
Adopting additional characteristics of effective prevention programs
to enhance the delinquency prevention potential of LRE should be explored.
Possibilities include (1) early start and long-term commitment to LRE programs;
(2) age-appropriate interventions; (3) strategies to address research-based
risk and protective factors; (4) targeting at-risk youth; (5) evidence-based
practice in every phase of a program; (6) interagency partnerships and
community linkages; and (7) comprehensive approaches that combine various
strategies and procedures.