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Childhood trauma and poverty linked to adult offending
Scottish longitudinal study finds people who have suffered extreme difficulties in childhood are more likely to commit crime.

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The Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime

The Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime is a longitudinal programme of research on pathways into and out of offending for a cohort of around 4,300 young people who started secondary school in Edinburgh in 1998. The latest (8th) report of the study published earlier this week followed-up cohort members at age 35.

Funded by the Nuffield Foundation, this phase of the study aimed to explore the causes and consequences of offending and just pathways from childhood to early middle age. Fieldwork included: attempting to re-contact all cohort members; collection of criminal convictions data for all cohort members; an online-survey of contacted cohort members; and interviews with a sub-sample of cohort members.
The research was designed to address the three key research questions set out below:

  1. How do people’s patterns of criminal conviction vary over time?
  2. Does contact with criminal justice help people stop offending over the longer term?
  3. What impact does offending and justice system contact have on education, employability, health and interpersonal relationships over the life course into early middle age?

It is very rare to find this sort of longitudinal study in the UK and the chance to measure outcomes over such a long period of time are invaluable. The key findings of the research are reproduced below:

  • Most people who offend during adolescence stop by early adulthood; however, desistance is a complex process influenced by multiple factors that are  not the same for everyone and do not necessarily remain constant over time.
  • Key factors that inhibit desistance from offending in adolescence and early adulthood include: an impulsive personality, engaging in drug use, and experiencing frequent crime victimisation.
  • Individuals who continue to offend beyond the age of 25
  • are significantly more vulnerable than those who stop by age 18, with a history of both adverse experiences and serious offending behaviour in childhood.
  • Early involvement in serious offending has a significant impact on the likelihood, longevity and severity of youth and adult criminal justice contact; however, many of those who engage in serious offending have no contact with justice organisations.
  • Pathways of criminal conviction from childhood to early adulthood vary considerably depending on people’s early life circumstances, and are associated with a wide range of behavioural, familial, contextual and experiential factors. However, those who come persistently into contact with the justice system over time tend to be amongst the poorest and most vulnerable.
  • Early and intensive formal system contact (especially care experience) is strongly associated with later justice system contact and a range of other negative outcomes.
  • People who have contact with the criminal justice system are not necessarily more likely to desist from offending and, indeed, for some people it may act as a catalyst for continued offending into adulthood.
  • Formal system contact is typically experienced by individuals as a set of barriers and hazards to be negotiated, but positive change relies on key individuals (such as youth workers or foster carers) who provide strong and consistent support.
  • Successful outcomes typically involve achieving modest social norms (such as family, home and employment); however, change is often precarious, especially amongst those who have a poor start in life.
  • Holistic approaches, which work across policy portfolios (education, economy, housing, and justice), and which target risk factors across communities rather than risky individuals in childhood and adolescence, are likely to be successful in driving down offending and conviction across the life-course.

Conclusions

The report also makes for interesting reading when it tries to answer two interesting questions; “Does contact with criminal justice help people stop offending over the longer term?” and “What impacts do offending and contacts with justice systems have on outcomes over the life-course into early middle age?”

The researchers concluded that there was no evidence that “criminal justice contacts in and of themselves help people stop offending over the longer term”.

They also found that many individuals who were referred to juvenile justice on care and protection grounds in early childhood described how they became increasingly viewed as offenders by agencies during their teenage years. Similarly, outcomes for care-experienced individuals were the most negative, with lives consistently blighted by poverty, mental health and drug problems, poor educational experiences, and periods of unemployment.

Interestingly, the researchers also concluded that when agencies did make a positive difference in people’s lives, it was generally felt to be due to an individual worker or carer with whom a strong relationship had been built.

The report concludes with a series of implications for people, policy and practice, the most striking of which is perhaps:

The answer is not to punish more, but to create the conditions which support opportunity structures, tackle poverty and, above all, address educational inclusion.”

 

Thanks to Nathan Dumlao for kind permission to use the header image in this post which was previously published on Unsplash.

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