Language processing and production skills of young offenders: implications for enhancing prevention and intervention strategies

Criminology Research Council grant ; (23/00-01)

This project examined the hypothesis that young offenders represent a population in whom oral language deficiencies are prevalent but unrecognised. Although young offenders are known to leave school early, and have a high risk for learning (reading and writing) difficulties, the oral language (speaking and listening) competence of this group has been under-researched. The oral language processing and production skills of a group of 30 young offenders completing community-based juvenile justice orders were compared with those of a group of 50 male students attending local government high schools (in the same regions as the juvenile justice units attended by the young offenders). Participants were compared on a range of measures dealing with the speed of language processing, understanding figurative (non-literal) language, and using narrative discourse to tell a story. In spite of the fact that the young offender group was, on average, two years older than the comparison group, they performed significantly more poorly on all but one measure employed. The findings indicate that oral language processing and production deficits are prevalent in this population, but may be masked on a day-to- day basis by young offenders' mastery of basic conversational scripts. Implications of the findings in the three domains are discussed: early intervention for young children displaying both learning and behaviour disturbances; forensic interviewing; and delivery of juvenile justice interventions.