Parliamentary Research Branch




Prepared by Patricia Begin
Political and Social Affairs Division
3 March 1995







Increasingly, Canadians are demanding more value for their investment in crime-fighting. Traditional reactions to crime – police, courts, corrections and legal aid – are costly. Government spending on these justice system services reached $9.57 billion in 1992-93, representing a 34% increase over 1988-89 spending. Yet personal and public security concerns continue to be priority issues for many Canadians.

A consensus is emerging among criminal justice professionals, service providers, social commentators and segments of the public that the conventional crime control model, which involves identifying and punishing those who breach our laws, has largely failed to reduce victimization and promote safety in our communities. In addition to resources to react to crime, they call for investments in crime prevention initiatives that focus on the underlying causes of crime and victimization.

There is mounting evidence that children exhibiting high levels of anti-social behaviours early in life, particularly those who are from economically disadvantaged, dysfunctional families and who experience academic and social problems at school, are at risk of developing into persistent young offenders and adult offenders. Observation and clinical assessments can identify children who are at risk of posing threats to community safety, threats that are likely to become progressively more serious as the youth proceed from adolescence to adulthood. Young people with serious social and behavioural difficulties, left untreated, become problems for the criminal justice system. By the time they are identified as a high risk in the community and incarcerated, it is often too late for them to profit from treatment aimed at instilling prosocial attitudes and behaviours. The prognosis for these "at-risk" young people highlights the need for preventive interventions.

Researchers have examined the relationship between poor parenting skills and children's poor social skills, and postulated that they are causally related to the development of delinquency. The effects of parent skills training and children's social skills training on reducing disruptive, aggressive behaviour and preventing delinquent behaviour have been evaluated. When implemented separately, these preventive measures have yielded uneven results. To assess the impact of both parent skills training and children's prosocial skills training, and to examine the social development of disruptive boys during the early school years, a longitudinal-experimental study of "at-risk" boys was conducted by researchers from the University of Montreal. The study is discussed by R.E. Tremblay, et al., in "Parent and Child Training to Prevent Early Onset of Delinquency: The Montreal Longitudinal Study," in J. McCord and R.E. Tremblay (eds.), Preventing Antisocial Behaviour: Interventions from Birth through Adolescence, Guilford Press, New York, 1992 (p. 117-138).


In spring 1984, the study was begun in Montreal schools located in areas largely inhabited by families of low socio-economic status. Kindergarten teachers were asked to rate the behaviour of each of the boys in their classes at the end of the school year. Ratings were completed by 87% of the kindergarten teachers and, in all, boys from 53 schools were selected for the longitudinal study. To control for the influence of culture on behaviour, boys were included as study subjects if their biological parents had been born in Canada and if the parents' mother tongue was French. To ensure that only those from families with low socio-economic status were included, boys whose parents had attained more than 14 years of schooling were not selected for the study.

The boys identified by their kindergarten teachers as being at-risk (i.e. disruptive, hyperactive, aggressive) were randomly assigned to three groups by the University of Montreal researchers: the treatment group, created for the experimental study of prevention; the observation group, created for the longitudinal observational study of the social interactions of disruptive boys; and, the no-treatment, no-contact control group, for evaluating the effects of the experimental study and of the longitudinal follow-up.

Parenting training programs were delivered by professionals working with individual families over a two-year period. The treatment for parents emphasized close supervision of children's behaviour, positive reinforcement of prosocial behaviour, consistent, non-abusive discipline strategies, and management of family crises.

Professionals provided social skills training in the school to small groups which included disruptive boys and prosocial peers. On average, the boys received treatment from the age of 7 to the age of 9. Treatment focused on social skills to promote positive interaction with teachers, parents and peers, problem-solving and self-regulation skills. Work was carried out with the teachers of the treated boys as well.

Post-treatment, the behaviour of the boys was assessed annually (from age 9 to age 12) by teachers, peers, mothers and the boys themselves. For all of the boys in the three groups, ratings were obtained on a number of indicators: educational achievement, fighting behaviour, overall school behaviour and performance, delinquent behaviour, mothers' perception of antisocial behaviour and the nature of parent-child relationships. This made it possible to assess the impact of intensive treatment on antisocial, disruptive behaviour.


The objectives of the parenting skills and children's social skills treatment were to reduce disruptive behaviour identified in kindergarten boys and thereby move them off the trajectory leading from early aggressive, antisocial behaviour to later aggressive, delinquent behaviour. The results from the three years of follow-up of this longitudinal-experimental research are encouraging and have practical implications.

By the end of primary school, the behaviour of the disruptive boys in the untreated group confirmed previous research findings that physical aggressiveness and academic problems, are predictors of delinquency that are identifiable early on in a child's development. The research also confirmed that social intervention can positively affect the social development of disruptive boys. Compared with the untreated boys, the boys who received the intensive multi-faceted treatment exhibited less aggression in school, performed well academically more often, experienced fewer difficulties in adjusting to school, and reported committing fewer delinquent acts up to three years after the end of treatment.

With respect to teacher-rated fighting, the boys in the control and observational groups had a significantly higher fighting score than those in the treated group. Untreated boys were twice as likely to be rated as having serious school behaviour and school performance problems as the boys in the treatment group (44% vs. 22%). A smaller proportion of the treated, than of the untreated, reported having committed delinquent acts involving trespassing (40% vs. 62%), stealing items worth less than $10 (19% vs. 45%), stealing items worth more than $10 (7% vs. 20%), and stealing bicycles (5% vs. 19%). No significant differences were found between the treated and untreated boys in terms of hyperactivity, prosociality and vandalism.

The researchers note that, at present, the long-term effects of the treatment administered are unknown. It is their intention to continue to track the development of the boys as they grow older in order to evaluate the durability of proactive intervention in preventing serious juvenile offending.


Delivering intensive social development and crime prevention programs (such as those in the Montreal longitudinal study) to children who are early identified to be anti-social (i.e., troubled, aggressive and hyperactive) is demonstrably more effective than warehousing them as adolescents in correctional institutions. According to many service providers in the youth justice system, custodial sentences fail to address the unmet developmental needs of chronic offenders, to teach young offenders to assume personal responsibility for their behaviour or to contribute to public safety. This view is buttressed by the fact that slightly less than half (46%) of the cases referred to youth court in 1990-91 involved recidivists.

Some early treatment models in the United States have, over the long term, been shown to decrease rates of juvenile crime and reduce criminal justice and social welfare costs. The Perry Preschool Project, an enriched pre-school program directed at multi-problem children and their families living in disadvantaged conditions, is one such model. An evaluation of the program found that, compared with a matched control group, the 3 to 6 year olds who had participated in the intervention were more likely to finish high school, attend post-secondary school, and be employed. There was also less teenage pregnancy, drug abuse and dependence on welfare among the participants and fewer had an arrest and conviction record. A cost-benefit analysis found that for each $1 invested in the preschool program there was a $5 return.

Crime prevention advocates argue persuasively that our historical and current emphasis on police, courts and corrections, to the exclusion of preventive strategies, has not brought about a reduction in levels of victimization, fear and crime. It is recognized that proactive measures such as the Perry Preschool Project, while not a cure for crime, may be more effective than punishment in delivering long-term protection to society.