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Crime and justice inequalities: people, places and systems

Over the last three decades, there has been a large fall in crime in Scotland, which is associated with a large reduction in both offending and victimisation amongst youth people.  There have also been significant changes to policing and justice system processes in Scotland which have impacted on the lives of young people, including new legislation governing the use of stop and search and the introduction of new diversionary measures within youth justice. 

The goal of our research has been to examine crime and justice inequalities in relation to people, places and systems with a particular interest in the life course.  This includes:

  • examining what factors increase the risk of young people getting involved in offending and how these vary for boys and girls.   
  • identifying inequalities in the likelihood of being a victim of crime and how these have changed as a result of the crime drop;
  • assessing the extent of inequalities in people’s criminal conviction pathways and how these were affected by childhood factors;
  • evaluating the impact of falling stop and search on rates of crime and the equality of policing practice across communities.

We have also conducted research on the impact of the pandemic in Scotland.  This has focused specifically on the police use of the new temporary powers introduced to control the spread of the Coronavirus.  Our research has examined the use of different types of policing interventions, with a particular focus on the police use of enforcement and its link to social and economic inequalities.

Key Findings

  1. The percentage of 12-year-old children involved in offending behaviour had fallen from 71% twenty years ago to 30% nowadays, with the fall in offending being larger for girls than boys.
    How changes in childhood have contributed to the crime drop in Scotland
  2. There is a strong connection between adverse childhood experiences – especially child maltreatment - and a child’s likelihood of offending, but this varies depending on whether the child is growing up in a deprived neighbourhood.
    ACEs, places and inequality: Understanding the effects of adverse childhood experiences and poverty on offending in childhood
  3. A mother’s previous involvement in offending has a significant influence on the behaviour of their daughters, but other factors have a stronger influence on the offending behaviour of sons.
    Like Mother, like child? The intergenerational transmission of maternal offending
  4. Living in poverty, adverse experiences and contact with formal systems of intervention in childhood have a medium-term effect on the offending behaviour of young people and a long term effect on their involvement in the criminal justice system. 
    The impact of structural, systemic and social inequalities in childhood on adolescent offending and early adult criminal conviction
  5. There are substantial inequalities in patterns of criminal conviction based on sex and indigenous status amongst young people growing up in Australia, and these are exacerbated by both youth justice and child welfare contact, although only non-indigenous girls experience additional inequality as a result of having both types of system contact. 
    From childhood system intervention to adult criminal conviction: Investigating sex and Indigenous status inequalities in Queensland administrative data
  6. There has been a reduction in victimisation inequality for younger people in Scotland, but an increase in victimisation inequality based on financial hardship.
    A crime drop for whom? Changing inequality in the profile of victims in Scotland from 2008-09 to 2017-18
  7. A substantial reduction in the use of stop and search in Scotland had no noticeable impact on crime rates; however, it did contribute to greater equity of policing practice across Scottish communities based on levels of poverty.
    Stop and search reform in Scotland: A study of effectiveness and equity
  8. The use of police enforcement as a result of the spread of the Coronavirus in Scotland has exacerbated inequalities amongst those living in the most deprived communities and those who have a prior criminal history. 
    i. Interim report on police use of the new Covid-19 powers
    ii. A new data report on police use of Covid-19 powers highlights links with deprivation and inequality
    iii. Second data report on police use of Fixed Penalty Notices

    iv. Third Data Report on Police Use of Fixed Penalty Notices under the Coronavirus Regulations in Scotland: March to December 2020
    v. Data Report on Police Charges Reported to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service under the Coronavirus Regulations: March 2020 to June 2021


Policy implications

The crime drop in Scotland has had a strong positive impact on children and young people – with fewer being involved in offending or suffering from victimisation.  However, young people growing up in poverty, those who experience adversity and vulnerability (such as parental maltreatment), and those who experience significant intervention from formal systems (such as school exclusion and police contact) are all at greater risk of involvement in youth offending and being caught up in the adult criminal justice system. 

Policy responses aimed at reducing crime or reoffending must take a nuanced and cross-portfolio approach which takes serious steps to reduce the pernicious effects of poverty on children and young people, addresses and reduces experiences of trauma in childhood and counteracts the negative effects of formal interventions by ensuring that system contact (both justice and welfare) is minimised as much as possible.

Inequalities that exist in society have been exacerbated by the pandemic, especially amongst those who are the most deprived and vulnerable in society.  Policies aimed at social ‘recovery’ will need to pay attention to multi-dimensional aspects of inequality that have impacted on specific social groups, including health, economic, social and justice inequalities.

Research Team

Professor Lesley McAra
Dr Paul Norris
Dr Ben Matthews
Research Fellow