So far, we have discussed a general picture of crime, reviewing definitions of what crime is thought to be; and how, with reference to the most commonly used definition, it is recorded and then patterns within it are analysed. Moving on from this descriptive approach, our next step is to examine what variables are correlated with crime, an area now usually seen as the realm of risk factors research. This has been an area of momentous growth in psychology and criminal justice, particularly in the period since roughly 1990 onwards. A ‘risk factor’ is a variable that is significantly correlated with an adverse outcome of interest – correlated to the extent that the risk factor can be used as a predictor of that outcome, though there is unlikely to be any single factor (or even a combination of factors) that can do this perfectly. The concept of risk factors and their identification through steadily mounting research has represented a major advance in forensic and other forms of applied psychology. It also underpins the process of risk assessment that we will describe more fully in Chapter 18.
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