A study of 411 boys provides a detailed picture of the characteristics shared by 8- to 10-year-olds who later become teenage delinquents.
Boys who frequently lie, lack concentration, spend little social time with their fathers and have a parent with a criminal conviction and delinquent friends, are more likely to become persistent offenders. Their school achievement was often low and the boys were of below average intelligence and height.
The research was carried out by Professor David Farrington, of the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge University, who started the study in 1961 and has tracked the boys since they were eight. All had working-class backgrounds and came from south London.
Of the 411 boys, 300 turned out to be non-offenders, 66 occasional offenders - receiving one or two criminal convictions - and 45 persistent offenders - three or more convictions - by the age of 18.
The 'delinquents' on average had about five convictions each for crimes including assault, theft, burglary and stealing cars. Interviews were carried out with the children, their parents and their teachers.
Professor Farrington told a conference on juvenile offenders at the Institute of United States Studies, University of London, that it might be possible to predict latent delinquents. In the 8- to 10-year-old group, about two in three of those who later became persistent offenders had been labelled 'troublesome' by teachers, compared with 29 per cent of the occasional offenders and 15 per cent of non-offenders.
The differences between the groups were also evident when the youths reached 18. At that age, the persistent offenders were more likely to be sexually promiscuous, take drugs and smoke and have left school without any exams.
Professor Farrington said the survey highlighted the need for the Government to focus on the causes of crime and 'combat the risk factors'. He said this could include providing greater welfare support and special programmes to develop children at school. 'If the Government adopted these measures there could be a significant reduction in the number of persistent offenders in the next century,' he said.