Methods: We conducted a systematic review of studies, following the guidelines set forth in Preferred Reporting Items for the Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis Protocols (PRISMA-P) and guidance from delinquency scholarship. Eligibility criteria identified studies that (1) were conducted in the United States from 1983 to 2017; (2) sampled youth with index offenses before the age of 18; (3) tested an ecological risk/protective factor; (4) had a dependent variable of re-offense (e.g., repeated delinquent behavior, and re-arrest); (5) had a follow-up period of six months or greater; and (6) used a longitudinal or experimental design. Two researchers reviewed, extracted data, and assessed quality for each eligible study. Using a narrative synthesis approach, we categorized variables into 13 domains and assessed support for their effects on reoffending, above and beyond (or in interaction with) other established individual risk markers or factors for reoffending (i.e., gender, age, and delinquency history or risk score).
Results: Twenty-three studies, containing 84 tests of ecological factors, met inclusion criteria. About half of the tests of ecological variables yielded statistically significant associations with reoffending (43/84). Results for concentrated disadvantage, the most frequently tested factor, were mixed (statistically significant in 15 of 28 tests; k = 15). Studies also commonly tested the association between demographic factors (e.g., neighborhood racial composition) and reoffending, which were fairly consistent in their lack of statistical significance (8 of 10 tests; k = 7). Other factors were tested infrequently or in few samples. As for variation in effects across studies, we found the relationship between ecological factors and reoffending differed by outcome definition and sample.
Conclusion and Implications: Together, the studies in this review indicate ecological factors cannot be summarily dismissed nor accepted as risk factors for juvenile reoffending. Instead, further theoretically driven research is warranted. Social work delinquency scholars, given their focus on situating individual behavior in environmental contexts, have an important role to play in further developing this area of research. To aid in this venture, we will present six specific lessons based on our findings, including implications for future social work scholarship on the ecology-reoffending relationship.