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The causes of juvenile crime are, of course, diverse and highly documented (see for example, Muncie 1999) and there is no unified theory as to how these manifest across different groups, contexts and circumstances. Nevertheless, research in Scotland has identified some common themes. One of the most significant studies on youth offending in recent years is the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime (ESYTC), a longitudinal programme of research on pathways into and out of offending for a cohort of around 4300 young people. Drawing on over 10 years of fieldwork from the study, McAra and McVie identified “four key ‘facts’ about youth crime which any system of youth justice ‘ought to fit’” (2010:180).

First, they found compelling evidence that persistent engagement in serious offending was associated with various forms of victimisation, vulnerability and social adversity in young people’s lives that could not be controlled away by taking account of other factors associated with a high risk of offending. Second, they stated that the process of ‘early identification’, which was considered by UK governments as key to intervening in the lives of at-risk children, was a highly fallible process which had a negative impact on the long-term offending outcomes of many disadvantaged young people. Third, they identified the early teenage years as being a critical period during which the nature and effectiveness of interventions imposed on young people could significantly determine whether they had a desisting or rising pattern of convictions during the teenage years. Importantly, they showed that significant contact with the juvenile justice system was likely to greatly increase the risk of entry to the adult criminal justice system.

And, fourth, they presented evidence that the working cultures of juvenile justice agencies led to the creation of a group of ‘usual suspects’ who were sucked into a repeat cycle of contact with the system with damaging consequences in terms of inhibiting desistance from offending. This led them to recommend diversionary strategies to facilitate the desistence process.

Taken together, McAra and McVie’s findings highlighted that a wide variety of risk factors were implicated in the reasoning behind juvenile offending; however, there were two critical factors that needed to be addressed with urgency in order to reduce the problem. First, the profound disadvantage, deprivation and vulnerability experienced by many young people outweighed other risk factors and was at the root of their pathway into a life of serious and persistent offending behaviour and their route into the criminal justice system. And, second, the system of juvenile justice itself, while predicated on well-intentioned policies and principles, was failing many young people by increasing their chances of both longer term criminal justice intervention and engagement in offending. The findings from this study underpinned the significant changes to the system of juvenile justice, discussed earlier. Importantly, however, they have also been reflected in a range of other Scottish studies.

Scotland has a rather unenviable reputation for violence and, in particular, knife crime which dates back to the early part of the last century (see Fraser et al. 2010; Fraser 2015; McVie in press). The problem has been particularly pervasive amongst young people, leading to high homicide rates compared to many other jurisdictions. A major study of youth gangs and knife crime found that gang membership and violent behaviour were regarded as a normal part of growing up for some young people, especially those living in more economically deprived parts of Scotland (Bannister et al. 2010). Those who engaged in knife carrying or gang membership tended to have more difficult and chaotic backgrounds than other young people. This included parental separation, poor parental supervision, hanging about the streets, engagement in offending and anti-social behaviour, and getting in trouble with the police. However, they were also more likely to have experienced crime victimisation and to engage in self-harming (McVie 2010). Both reports highlighted a prevailing sense of vulnerability and hardship underlying the behaviours of these young people.

Further work by McAra and McVie (2015) has found evidence of an incremental effect of early poverty on criminal justice and labour market outcomes in early adulthood. Members of the ESYTC cohort from the most deprived backgrounds in childhood were more likely to be not in education, employment or training (NEET), to have been convicted and to have been imprisoned compared to other young people, even when controlling for a wide range of other early risk factors. Furthermore, there is evidence that although crime has fallen in Scotland, the risk of victimisation has not fallen amongst those who are the most likely to be victims of crime and that it is becoming more highly concentrated within socio-economically deprived families and neighbourhoods (McVie et al. 2015). These findings provide a basis for the work of other scholars who argue for the development of a more inclusive social justice agenda in Scotland, which recognises the engrained inequalities in Scottish communities and their impact on the criminal justice outcomes of the most vulnerable people in our society (Scott and Mooney 2015).

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