Key findings

  • It has been argued that thresholds into prevention services should be clearly set so that children not at risk of offending are not subject to unnecessary prevention measures.
  • There is evidence – although of variable strength – to support the use of the following:
    • functional family therapy and parenting classes
    • interventions that focus on self-control or social competency
    • school-based programmes
    • mentoring
    • positive activity programmes.
  • Deterrence-based schemes have been found to increase offending, and discipline and control-based programmes have also been found to be ineffective.
  • It is important that new models of preventative work have a robust embedded evaluation.


In 2021, the Youth Justice Board and the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers defined prevention as ‘support and intervention with children (and their parents/carers) who may be displaying behaviours which may indicate underlying needs or vulnerability’. There are two tiers:

  • early prevention is used for children with no linked offence, targets unmet needs or welfare concerns, and is usually delivered by non-criminal justice agencies, such as children’s social care or voluntary sector groups
  • targeted prevention is for children who have come into contact with the criminal justice system (CJS) but not yet received a court disposal or out-of-court disposal and are not being seen under a diversion scheme or other statutory order. This also aims to address unmet needs or welfare concerns.

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has recommended that prevention and early intervention programmes should focus on support for families, adopt a systemic approach that includes closing pathways into contact with the youth justice system, as well as child-friendly and multi-disciplinary approaches based on a comprehensive assessment of the child’s needs. The aim of prevention is to address unmet needs and welfare concerns through a timely and proportionate approach, crucially without drawing the child further into the CJS and thus avoiding the potential for stigmatisation or labelling effects. As such prevention interventions are delivered by a range of services best placed to help the child including statutory, non-statutory, and voluntary partners.

Youth prevention programmes are voluntary and both the child and their parents/carers must agree with the approach before the child can be referred. Typically, a child will be identified by an agency such as the school, the youth justice service (YJS), or health care. Once identified, the child is assessed to determine what unmet needs they might have, including any vulnerabilities. They are then referred to an appropriate prevention programme.

Statistics on children involved in prevention programmes are not currently available.

Summary of the evidence

Links to Child First

One of the key tenets of the Child First principle is to promote a childhood removed from the justice system, using pre-emptive prevention, diversion and minimal intervention, to avoid the stigmatisation that greater contact with the justice system can bring.  Within prevention work, a focus needs to be maintained upon enhancing the wellbeing of children, promoting their social inclusion, building family resilience, and providing access to universal services and facilities. Providing the right opportunities and support at the right time means that a range of services and supports should be available which are accessible, responsive, flexible and sustainable,

Find out more about Child First

Routes and thresholds into prevention services

Routes into prevention services can be through multiple services. A Youth Justice Board study from 2014 found that education services were the most common route into prevention services (37 per cent of cases), followed by police referrals (18 per cent) and children’s social care referrals (15 per cent). The same study found that there was considerable variety between YJSs in their processes for ‘referral, verification, assessment or review’. Some areas ran Youth Inclusion Programmes which use panels of local referring agencies to identify and agree suitable children for interventions.

Thresholds for referral varied across youth justice services, all the way from no threshold (all referred children were accepted) to matching a specified assessment score. Some staff expressed concerns about the lack of clarity around thresholds, with concerns that children who could be better helped elsewhere were being accepted onto prevention programmes. It is important that children not at risk of offending are not subject to unnecessary prevention measures.

Differing types of programme

Family relationships: Parents/carers can be involved in prevention programmes. They might attend programme activities or classes with their child, or be asked to make sure that the child follows what they are asked to do. Parents/carers can also be asked to attend a parenting course. Sometimes this is part of a youth prevention programme, but it can also be available separately. These programmes are flexible and can be focused on improving parenting skills or making sure that there is nothing in the home that might lead the child to offending.

Find out more about the research evidence in relation to family relationships and promising interventions

Self-control and social competency: Programmes that teach children social, emotional and cognitive competence, e.g. through appropriate effective problem solving and anger management, have been found to be effective at reducing offending. They often involve behavioural or cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques.

School and education: School-based programmes can address a range of offending-related factors such as substance use, attendance, and behaviour. School programmes have been found to work best when targeted but still show some benefit when used on an entire class. Targeted programmes should be used sensitively to avoid stigmatisation or labelling effects; delivery in school rather than in criminal justice settings can be helpful to avoid these negative effects. Schools that have used trauma-informed practice have seen reductions in exclusions and truancy, alongside better communication and emotional management between students and adults.

Find out more about the research evidence in relation to education, training and employment, and promising interventions

Mentoring: Mentors are specially trained volunteers who spend time helping children in areas such as improvements at school, coping with bullying, or applying for jobs or colleges. This help is typically not as time limited in comparison to a prevention programme.

There is evidence that mentoring can prevent children from offending, although some studies have shown no effect. It has been found to work best as part of a package of interventions and when mentoring meetings take place at least once a week for five hours or more in duration with an emphasis on emotional support. There is some evidence that some activities within mentoring such as motivational interviewing can be effective.

Positive activities: These programmes focus on building strengths rather than addressing deficits. There is some research, although often small studies, which has concluded that involving children at risk of offending in drama, music and other arts programmes can help to reduce this risk. Some of these studies have also found reduced exclusions – a key issue for at risk youth – and improved attitudes to education. Studies amongst the general child population show that arts programmes can improve creativity and thinking skills, communication and expressive skills, personal and social development, and self-esteem and self-worth.

A Youth Justice Sport Fund was launched in December 2022 with the aim of utilising sport as a powerful tool to engage at-risk young people, diverting them from crime and antisocial behaviour. The initial evaluation report highlights how sport, when provided in a safe, supportive environment, can give young people a sense of belonging and expose them to a diverse array of positive role models. The report also recommends that focus is placed upon recognising and involving young people by celebrating their participation and through providing opportunities for their formal engagement in evaluation and decision-making processes.

The video below focuses on one of the recipients of the Sport Fund which engages children in physical activity and provides informal mentoring.

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.

Deterrence and discipline or control-based programmes: Deterrence-based schemes are those that inform children about the consequences of crime, for example by taking children to tour prisons, meet prisoners etc. These programmes range in type and intensity, including programmes that attempt to scare the child which are sometimes labelled as ‘scared straight’ approaches. Systemic reviews covering a wide range of studies have shown that these programmes are not only ineffective, but can actually increase youth offending. Programmes like boot camps that aim to instil discipline, often in a military sense, have not been found to have any positive effect at preventing offending by children.

The importance of further evaluation

It is important that the deployment of any new models of preventative work have an embedded well-designed and robust evaluation to accurately gauge the effectiveness of the work. Bearing in mind that preventative activities and interventions seek to prevent criminal behaviour and safeguard against negative events, it can be hard to evidence whether the work is successful or not as the absence of an offence could be attributed to multiple causes. Due to this ‘measuring absence’ problem, it has been suggested that the focus should be upon measurable, demonstrable and achievable positive behaviours and outcomes.

Key references

Case, S. and Haines, K. (2015). ‘Children First, Offenders Second Positive Promotion: Reframing the Prevention Debate’, Youth Justice, 15(3), pp. 226-239.

Mason, C., Walpole, C., Morgan, H. and Meek, R. (2023). Youth Justice Sport Fund External Evaluation Report. Manchester: StreetGames.

Norris, G. (2021). A Child First Pathfinder Evaluation – Ceredigion Youth Justice and Prevention Service: Towards a Common Preventions Approach Across Wales. Aberystwyth University.

Ross, A., Duckworth, K., Smith, D., Wyness, G. and Schoon, I. (2011). Prevention and reduction: a review of strategies for intervening early to prevent or reduce youth crime and anti-social behaviour. Centre for Analysis of Youth Transitions.

Youth Justice Board (2014). Prevention Practice: Learning from Youth Crime Prevention Activity in Eight Youth Offending Teams during 2008/09 and 2009/10. London: Youth Justice Board

Youth Justice Board (2017). Prevention in Youth Justice. London: Youth Justice Board.

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Last updated: 27 October 2023