Finding the Causes of Criminal Offending

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Finding the Causes of Criminal Offending    

Jim Windell

            What do we currently know about how and why young people drift into an out of crime?

           Perhaps the best answers come from the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime. The Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime is a longitudinal research program looking at pathways into and out of offending for a cohort of around 4,300 young people who started secondary school in Edinburgh in 1998.

           This long-term study was designed to address three key research questions:

              ● How do people’s patterns of criminal conviction vary over time?

              ● Does contact with criminal justice help people stop offending over the longer term?

              ● What impact does offending and justice system contact have on education, employability, health and inter­personal relationships over the life course into early middle age?

           However, the overarching purpose of the study, co-directed by Lesley McAra, Professor of Penology in the School of Law at the University of Edinburgh, and Susan McVie, Professor of Quantitative Criminology at the University of Edinburgh, is to examine the causes and consequences of young people’s involvement in crime and anti-social behavior.

           A report was released recently which provides a summary of findings from the most recent phase of the study which followed-up cohort members at age 35. Key findings revealed in this latest phrase include the following:

              ● Most people who have been involved in criminal offending during adolescence stop (desist) by early adulthood.

              ● Desistance (stopping) is a complex process influenced by multiple factors that are not the same for everyone.

              ● Key factors that lead to continued offending include an impulsive personality, using drugs and frequently being a victim of crime.

              ●Those individuals who continue to offend after age 25 are those who are vulnerable; that is, they have a history of adverse experiences and engaging in serious offenses in childhood.

               ● While pathways from childhood offending to adult convictions vary considerably depending on people’s life circumstance’s, those who consistently come into contact with the justice system tend to be among the poorest and most vulnerable people in the study.

                ● Early and intensive involvement in the “system,” which often means foster care and other placements, tends to be associated with later contact with the criminal justice system.

                ● People who have contact with the justice system do not necessarily desist from further offending; indeed, justice system involvement seems to be a catalyst for some offenders.

                ● 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.

            The latest report makes for interesting reading if you wonder why young people (mostly boys and young men) get involved in crime and what we can do about it. It seems that both temperament and personality along with early childhood circumstances as well as where people live play the largest roles in determining whether a particular individual will get involved in crime.

             We have an elaborate criminal justice system, yet the research tends to suggest that there is no evidence that “criminal justice contacts in and of themselves help people stop offending over the longer term.” The researchers also found that many individuals who were referred to the juvenile justice system or the child welfare system for care and protection early in childhood often described how they became increasingly viewed as offenders by these agencies during their teenage years. Similarly, outcomes for individuals who were placed in foster care or received agency contacts tended to be the most negative. Their lives, rather than being improved, were consistently blighted by poverty, mental health and drug problems, poor educational experiences, and periods of unemployment. On the other hand, the researchers 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 caregiver with whom a strong relationship had been built.

           It is important to emphasize what, perhaps, we already know only too well, but seemingly cannot – or will not – do anything about. That is, if we really wanted to significantly reduce crime, we would do something about making sure families had jobs, adequate housing, proper educations and stayed away from the justice system.

           The report concludes with a series of implications for people, policy and practice. But, to reiterate what was just said, the most striking of the implications is that “The answer [to crime] is not to punish more, but to create the conditions which support opportunity structures, tackle poverty and, above all, address educational inclusion.”

            To read the latest report from the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime, find it by clicking here.



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