Professor Susan McVie: Appeal to subjects of youth crime study to share invaluable insights

A brush with the law at an early age can be very damaging
A brush with the law at an early age can be very damaging
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It is one of the world’s most influential studies on youth offending, yet its impact has been far wider than the criminal justice system.

Since its inception in 1998, the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime has also helped us gauge how experiences growing up can influence a person’s life chances.

It has not only shown how interventions impact on offenders, but also deepened our understanding of people’s health, mental wellbeing, employment prospects and relationships.

This vital research, which began with a survey of more than 4,000 secondary pupils, has gone on to shape Scottish youth justice policy and had significant international impact.

With the original study participants now aged 33, we are keen to speak to them again to find out how their lives have changed. This new phase seeks to better understand how events and experiences in childhood have influenced people’s pathways into adulthood.

We understand that some might think it is not relevant to them anymore, especially as the study focused on people’s experience of crime, but the path not taken often reveals as much as the road travelled.

We have discovered as much from those who did not get involved in offending as we learned from those who did. Identifying the factors that protect people from participating in anti-social behaviour has been vital in persuading policy makers that more could be done to help young people steer clear of the justice system.

In particular, the study will compare the experiences of those who were involved in offending in childhood with those who were not, to see whether it made any difference to their outcomes in adulthood.

A team of researchers from the University of Edinburgh – which I’m leading with my co-director, Professor Lesley McAra – is hoping everyone who took part as teenagers will get back in touch. The value of the study will be greatly increased if we can follow up on the lives of everybody, not just those who were involved in offending.

Previously, participants were asked each year to fill in a questionnaire about various aspects of their lives, including their experience of crime, so that we could understand what caused some young people to get involved in offending while others did not.

By following them up over several years, we have identified common factors that increase the risk of offending, and have been able to evaluate the impact that contact with the police and youth justice system has on people’s behaviour.

This includes influencing the Scottish Government to develop new youth justice measures aimed at reducing re-offending and encouraging the Scottish Parliament to increase the age at which young people can be prosecuted in Scotland.

The study has also had a profound effect on how children and young people who misbehave are dealt with by teachers, police officers and social workers. It has, for example, resulted in fewer children being excluded from school and more compassionate approaches to working with children who have come to the attention of the justice system.

The value of participants’ contribution cannot be underestimated. This is a remarkable group of people. They were growing up during the early years of devolution, which was a turbulent period, politically speaking.

As they reached their mid-teens, there was a huge amount of government attention on youth crime and many young people were drawn into the justice system for very minor offences. Our study has been vital in showing how damaging that could be.

We have written to all the study members, but we are aware that many of them may have moved, or even left the city. We would ask anyone who remembers filling in our questionnaires at school to contact us. And we would ask parents or friends of participants to make sure they are aware we are trying to get in touch.

By taking part in this next phase of the study, this unique group of people will inform the development of a wide range of government policies, including in the areas of justice, health, education, welfare and inequality. But more importantly, they will be improving the lives of children and adults from across the whole of Scotland.

Professor Susan McVie is Chair of Quantitative Criminology within the School of Law at Edinburgh University