Key findings

  • Pro-criminal associates and leisure/recreation activities have both been identified as offending-related factors. The mechanisms by which peer relationships link to offending behaviour have been discussed in many theories, covering facets of friendship selection, routine activity/opportunity, and learned behaviours. Many studies have identified an increased likelihood of anti-social or criminal behaviour with increased unsupervised, unstructured social time spent with peers.
  • Low peer delinquency and positive supportive peer relationships are both significant protective factors. Where other risk factors are prevalent, positive peer relationships can help to mitigate these risks.
  • Although shown to be a moderate predictor of reoffending, there is limited robust evidence on interventions focusing on pro-social leisure/recreation. Evidence suggests these activities should be structured or have a skill-based focus to be potentially beneficial.
  • While individual offence-focused work might be appropriate for some individuals, the social needs of the child must also be addressed, with attention given to the full context of the child’s life.


Within the Risk-Need-Responsivity (RNR) model, pro-criminal associates and leisure/recreation are identified as two of the seven major criminogenic needs. Many criminological theories have attempted to explain the onset of offending in relation to an individual’s relationships, with the following processes having been highlighted:

  • ‘friendship selection’ – this could be due to exclusion from pro-social groups which drive individuals together into anti-social groups; or conversely positive association with those with similar personalities/attitudes, e.g. individuals similarly predisposed to low self-control befriend each other
  • ‘routine activity/opportunity’ – peer-peer time away from authority figures or without satisfying structured activity allows individuals and groups the opportunity to engage in pro-criminal behaviours
  • ‘social learning’ – individuals imitate the beliefs and behaviours of their peers

Several models/theories also include the wider context of the children’s lifestyle and relationships. An example of this is the social-ecological framework which sees children in terms of their relationships with their immediate environment of family, friends, school and neighbourhood and the wider sociocultural, political-economic context. The framework highlights how YOTs can support children through effective working relationships.

Find out more about the social-ecological framework

Key statistics are as follows:

  • of those children sentenced in the year ending March 2020 with a completed AssetPlus assessment, there were concerns in relation to lifestyle in 65 per cent of cases
  • when looking at factors related to offending, features of lifestyle was the joint most common factor (40 per cent with a strong or moderate rating).

Summary of the evidence

The following factors relating to peer relationships have been identified in the literature as relevant to children coming into conflict with the law:

  • peer involvement in offending/anti-social behaviour
  • activities while with peers
  • peer attitudes to offending/anti-social behaviour
  • involvement in criminal activities with peers
  • levels of violence among peer groups
  • involvement of peers in education
  • involvement of peers in training/employment.

Lifestyle and peer relationships as a criminogenic factor

Literature reviews consistently rank pro-criminal associates as one of the strongest correlates of criminal behaviour (both youth and adult cohorts). This effect increases with age, and it has been suggested that transitions in the types of criminal activities are illustrative of the impact of pro-criminal peer groups, as these groups increase the opportunity to learn a variety of criminal behaviours. Spending time in unstructured activities, i.e. peer socialisation in the absence of responsible authority figures without an agenda for how time is to be spent, has also been found to increase the levels of offending behaviour.

Despite the links with offending, there is limited robust evidence on targeted intervention programmes aimed to increase involvement in pro-social free-time activities. There have been some physical activity and sports-based interventions, but the evidence base requires further strengthening. The video below provides an example of one initiative which engages children in physical activity and provides mentors to help prevent and divert them away from crime.

Disclaimer: an external platform has been used to host this video. Recommendations for further viewing may appear at the end of the video and are beyond our control.

Research into peer-on-peer abuse and the subsequent development of the Contextual Safeguarding approach (see our Academic Insights paper 2020/07 (PDF, 334 kB) by Carlene Firmin) provides a further promising approach in increasing the focus on protecting children from harms outside of the family home, by targeting the social and physical spaces where exploitation and violence are likely to occur.

Lifestyle and peer relationships as a protective factor

Low peer delinquency and good, supportive peer relationships in late childhood have both been found to be beneficial. Furthermore, where other risk factors are prevalent, positive peer factors can mitigate some of this risk. Children’s narratives of their journey towards a ‘good life’ highlight the importance of strengths and resilience, (in)formal social supports, making sense of past experiences, and rebuilding personally valued lives. While individual offence-focused work might be appropriate for some children, their social needs must also be addressed.

Child development theories further emphasise the need to promote positive social and emotional development to reduce vulnerability to future offending or harmful behaviour. It is therefore essential that activities and services delivered by local communities and by practitioners should promote the development of:

  • emotional wellbeing
  • good social skills including empathy, communication, and pro-social behaviour
  • conflict resolution / problem solving skills
  • sense of self-esteem and self-control
  • sense of hope, motivation for personal achievement
  • positive peer group influence
  • positive, supportive and caring adults in their life
  • opportunities for meaningful participation
  • access to wider support networks.
Inspection data

In our inspections of youth offending services, our inspectors examine individual cases and identify those factors most related to the child’s desistance. Across those inspections conducted between June 2018 and February 2020, lifestyle was the most frequently identified factor, recorded in three-quarters of inspected cases. It was more commonly identified for boys than girls.

Our inspectors further judged that delivery was sufficient in about seven in ten (71 per cent) of those cases where lifestyle was an identified factor. The sufficiency of delivery was significantly lower for children with more previous sanctions, children ‘looked after’, and Black and Asian children.

In our 2021 thematic inspection of black and mixed heritage boys in the youth justice system, we reported as follows:

A striking feature across eight of the nine YOSs was that children grounded their offending in their environment and the influence of their peer group, which was an ongoing challenge and cause of stress for them. They spoke about how easy it was to get caught up in behaviours that they would never have considered by themselves. Due to their young age, they were not always equipped with the experience and skills to resist this.

Key references

Andrews, D.A. and Bonta, J. (2017). The psychology of criminal conduct. London: Routledge

Children’s and Young People’s Centre for Justice. (2022), Children and young people in conflict with the law: policy, practice and legislation, Section 3: Theory and methods. Glasgow: CYCJ

Firmin, C. (2020). Contextual Safeguarding and Child Protection: Rewriting the Rules. 1st ed. Oxon: Routledge

Johns, D.F., Williams, K. and Haines, K. (2017). ‘Ecological Youth Justice: Understanding the Social Ecology of Young People’s Prolific Offending’, Youth Justice, 17(1), pp. 3-21.

Kilkelly, U., Forde,L., Hurley, E., Lambert, S., Swirak, K., Kelleher, D. and Buckley, S. (2022). Ensuring the collaborative reform of youth justice in Ireland in line with international research and evidence-based approaches. University College Cork.

Public Health England. (2019). Collaborative approaches to preventing offending and re-offending in children (CAPRICORN): a resource for local health & justice system leaders to support collaborative working for children and young people with complex needs. London: Public Health England

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Last updated: 10 March 2023