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A foundation for progressive youth justice policies

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Progressive youth justice policies in Scotland, which have led to the lowest rates of youth conviction and imprisonment since 1972, could go further still, according to the findings of an influential study.

The Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime (ESYTC), conducted at the University of Edinburgh, has been hailed as the most influential academic research on youth justice in the last 30 years.

It showed that keeping young people who committed offences out of the formal youth justice system, and in mainstream education, for as long as possible was important and effective to reduce reoffending.

The earlier a young person interacts with the formal justice system, the more damaging the impact on their long-term future. Welfare interventions and support also proved more effective than punishment at improving long-term outcomes for these children.

The study has underpinned a series of policy changes and incremental adjustments in the Scottish approach to youth justice; adaptations that have contributed, over time, to a 34 per cent fall in youth convictions, and a 45 per cent fall in imprisonment, since 2015.

It also provided the evidence base that informed the raising of the Scottish Age of Criminal Responsibility – the age at which someone is considered fully responsible for their crimes – from age 8 to 12. Ongoing work suggests raising this further could be appropriate.

Longitudinal study

The Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime is a 25-year longitudinal study. It began in 1998 with a cohort of 4,300 children aged 11+ who were starting their first year of secondary school in the Scottish capital. Members of that cohort, now in their 30s, remain engaged with the study to this day.

Professor Lesley McAra
Professor Lesley McAra

The study’s co-directors are Professor Lesley McAra CBE FRSE, Assistant Principal (Community Relations) at the University and Chair of Penology at Edinburgh Law School, and Professor Susan McVie OBE FRSE FAcSS, Chair of Quantitative Criminology at Edinburgh Law School.

They closely examined the experiences and behaviours of this unique group of children as they grew up and made the transition into adulthood.

“The main aim of the study was to examine their offending behaviour in childhood and see how this changed over time,” explained Professor McVie.

“We also looked at a wider range of factors, such as their experiences of victimisation, their leisure activities and involvement in clubs and groups, their perceptions of life, their peers and families, how they did at school and how they described their own personalities – so that we could make sense of their lives in the round.

“We examined how these different aspects of their lives changed over time and which factors were most associated with children who got involved in offending, particularly more persistent or serious behaviours.

“We were also interested in looking at how the neighbourhoods they lived in shaped their behaviours and their lives, and how different aspects of contact with formal agencies of social control might impact on them – such as their educational experience and contact with the police, the courts or social work.”

The size of the cohort has made the ESYTC the UK’s largest criminological life-course study and one of few worldwide to include both boys and girls. The study included children in mainstream secondary schools and private schools, as well as schools for children with special educational needs.

Professor McAra added: “It was always our ambition that this would have some kind of impact to enhance justice for children and young people who come into contact with the law.”

Societal factors

Achieving that goal has not come about easily and progress has involved incremental evolution, rather than revolution.

“It has not been an easy journey,” says Professor McAra. “We’ve had a lot of impact over the last decade but it was initially really difficult to get traction in policy circles.”

Professor Susan McVie
Professor Susan McVie

Through the study’s Advisory Group, which is made up of senior representatives from education, police, and social work, and agencies such as the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration, Scottish Prison Service, Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, and Scottish Government, Professors McAra and McVie worked closely with practitioners and policy makers to ensure their findings flowed directly into practice.

The findings show a complex range of social and societal factors are linked to an individual’s likelihood of persistent serious offending. Childhood adversities such as poverty, bullying and victimisation, self-harm, social marginalisation and, most significantly, school exclusion all influence outcomes. The study demonstrates that keeping children out of the formal youth justice system and in education is most effective in reducing crime and improving their long-term outcomes.

“Poverty and school exclusion underpins a lot of offending,” explains Professor McAra.

“Poverty is a key driver of offending but it’s also a key driver of both youth justice and adult criminal justice system contact. You’re more likely to be sucked into the system if you are a child from a lower socioeconomic status background, and the deeper you get sucked into the system the less likely you are to desist from offending.

“About 96 per cent of our cohort admitted to offending at some point in their lives. Rule breaking of some sort is a completely normal, adolescent behaviour; but the ones who become the most serious and violent offenders are among the most vulnerable in the cohort as well. There’s a very strong relationship between vulnerability and violence but most kids get involved in some kind of offending and mostly grow out of it without any kind of intervention whatsoever.”


The study has now been influencing approaches to youth justice and policy change for more than two decades.

Among others, it has informed the Scottish Government’s Getting it Right for Every Child policy, introduced in 2006, which helps families work in partnership with professionals such as teachers, and healthcare workers, to ensure young people receive the right help and support, at the right time, from the most appropriate places.

The study also formed the evidence base for the Scottish Prison Service’s Vision for Young People in Custody and the Scottish Government’s Youth Justice Strategy 2015-2020. Together, these contributed to the fall in youth conviction and imprisonment.

Paul Carberry, Director of Action for Children Scotland and a member of the study’s Advisory Group said: “There is no doubt the study by McAra and McVie has been the most influential academic research into youth justice in the 30 years I have been working in this area.

“The findings significantly influenced the approach to working with young people in trouble to the significant benefit of many thousands of children and young people in Scotland… [T]he research findings were widely drawn upon and provided an important benchmark for a group of advisors from different professional backgrounds.”

Professor McVie said: “We produced a series of briefing papers on a whole range of things – drug use, persistent offending, family functioning and all of these other things. All these little bits of evidence we were producing on a regular basis and the conversations we were having with agencies meant our research findings very much chimed with practitioner groups.

“By the time the political favour was starting to change [towards more welfarist youth justice policy] we already had the backing of a huge number of civic organisations and senior policymakers and a range of third sector and public organisations. The story of change has been a very incremental one but it’s been about persistence and being connected to the right people.”

The culmination of the study’s impact, so far, came with the Scottish Government’s Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Act in 2019. The ESYTC was the primary evidence base underpinning this radical legislation, which raised the age of legal accountability to 12.

In 2019, Professors McAra and McVie were awarded the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Prize for Outstanding Public Policy Impact, for their role in raising the age of criminal responsibility in Scotland.

Critical transition

Professor McVie explained how the change came about: “Our research showed that between the age of about 12 and 15 was a really critical transition point for children. Young offenders who were drawn into the youth justice system and given a criminal record at that early age were far more likely to end up going on to a pathway of chronic conviction later on. Whereas those children who were dealt with in diversionary ways that kept them out of the justice system had much more positive outcomes.”

Professor McAra underlined the significance of the policy shift: “The increase in the age of criminal responsibility to 12 is very important symbolically. It’s a massive thing for the Scottish Government to have done, in the context of the United Kingdom, as all the other countries are set at 10. For the public to accept this increase is really important and reflects a big social and cultural shift.

“Very many of the things that stop people getting involved in crime in the first place or help them stop if they are involved in crime, are nothing to do with the criminal or juvenile justice systems. Many of the things that are the drivers or the causes of crime, so to speak, are things that are beyond the system – parents having jobs, good housing, a good education, and good mental and physical health.

“All these things are really important in terms of nurturing children. Many of the children who get caught up in the system have been completely failed by everything else around them. They are then, in some respects, taking responsibility for things that are beyond their control if they are criminalised. Poverty, education and exclusion, parental neglect and many of these other things are not within the ken of the children to change – why should they be criminalised as a consequence of that?

“What it doesn’t mean is that nothing should happen to them. Under many of the Scandinavian systems, although they have an age of criminal responsibility at 15, there are major and actually quite strict and controlling welfare measures below that age. So, it doesn’t mean nothing happens, it’s just the criminalisation that doesn’t happen because the things that lead people to be involved in crime are not always under their control.”

Old police box in Edinburgh

The identification of this transitional point in life was one of the key pieces of evidence used to raise the Scottish age of criminal responsibility to 12. It is evidence that Professors McAra and McVie are continuing to use to suggest that it might be raised higher than 12 in future.

International standard

“Our research suggests that the age of criminal responsibility should sit round about 15 or 16, and that 12 is still too young,” explains Professor McVie. “The decision to increase the age of criminal responsibility to 12 was very positive, but patterns of childhood offending in Scotland have already changed significantly. There are very few children under the age of 12 coming to the attention of the police for offending behaviour now.

“The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that the age of criminal responsibility should be 14 at the very least, so even though in Scotland we now have a higher age than in England and Wales it is still well below what would be considered an international standard.

“We are still working very actively to influence policy around the age of criminal responsibility as that’s still being reviewed by the Scottish Government. Lesley and I both sit on different committees that are involved in feeding evidence into the Scottish Government about what, how, and when they might raise the age of criminal responsibility again.”

For both Professor McAra and Professor McVie, what’s most important about raising the age of criminal responsibility to 12 – or even higher – is the positive, long-term effect of keeping children free of criminalisation and stigmatisation.

“One of the big benefits for children is not having a criminal record that then follows you,” said Professor McAra. “It can in some cases follow you on an enhanced disclosure, even if the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act kicks in and it’s a spent conviction. If you’re going for a certain job that needs enhanced disclosure, that’s on your record and has serious consequences for people in later life.”

Professor McVie agrees: “Having a criminal record is a label that gets stuck to you and has very profound effects. It can stop you getting a job. It can stop you studying certain things. It’s the difference between you being selected for something important compared to another person.

“By following young people up over time, we’ve found that many people have talked about doing things that they regret later. Once they’ve got that label stuck on, they are far less likely to get the benefit of the doubt from the police or other justice agencies. So, giving someone the benefit of the doubt and being able to deal with childish behaviour in ways that don’t stigmatise and label them is hugely beneficial.”


The co-directors of the ESYTC are quick to acknowledge the contribution of others to the study’s success – particularly the many researchers that have worked on the study over the years, and the Advisory Group of individuals who helped with the study, made use of its findings, and acted as champions for it.

The study is also indebted to the generosity of the cohort, who since childhood have engaged with the research and been open about some of the most vulnerable times of their lives.

Professor McVie said: “Over the years, many of them have shared their most personal secrets, their family circumstances, and the adversities that they have faced – really difficult challenges. It has been amazing.”

Professor McAra added: “They’ve wanted to take part and be part of something. Many of them have said how important they have found it. We’ve always tried to feedback to them how the research has made a difference and there is a really strong generous sense of them saying ‘I want to make a difference for young people and I’m happy to share my story because I think it will make difference to others’. We’ve been genuinely touched by that and are so grateful for their generosity.”

The study has also benefited from funding from a number of sources since 1998, including the ESRC and the Scottish Government.

Photography: Julie Howden and Getty Images.