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The impact of early inequalities and adverse experiences on offending and criminal conviction over the life-course

McAra and McVie

Poverty and early justice system intervention are known to be key contributors to offending behaviour amongst young people and, even more so, to contribute to inequality in exposure to justice system contact.  In recent years, attention has started to focus on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and the extent to which people who come to the attention of criminal justice organisations are impacted by these.  In Scotland, for example, policing and prisons policies have started to develop ‘trauma informed practice’ in order to engage more compassionately with individuals who may have experienced ACEs. However, the full extent of the relationship between ACEs and offending or criminal justice system contact is not entirely clear; and there are some concerns that a narrow focus on ACEs deflects attention away from the impact of other known risk factors, including structural poverty and negative system effects. 

The research questions guiding this paper are:

·         To what extent do ACEs impact on offending behaviour in adolescence?

·         Does the impact of ACEs remain when you control for other offending risk factors, including poverty and early system contact?

·         Do ACEs have a longer term impact on likelihood of ending up in the criminal justice system?

·         Is any impact of ACEs on criminal justice system contact mediated by earlier involvement in offending?

Type(s) of inequality and how inequality is defined

This paper focuses on inequality in terms of involvement in offending behaviour and contact by the criminal justice system.  It does so by focusing on the impact of experience of poverty, early justice system contact and ACEs on inequality in exposure to offending in adolescence and criminal justice system processing in early adulthood.  It also take account of sex differences in these encounters.

Approach or method used

This paper uses data from the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime.  We apply latent growth analysis to identify classes of both offending behaviour (during adolescence) and criminal conviction (from adolescence to early adulthood), and then run multinomial regression to determine how early offending, system contact and ACEs impact on these class memberships.  This is done in two stages, firstly examining the class membership of the adolescent offending trajectories; and then, secondly, exploring the class membership of the criminal conviction classes, using the most likely class membership of the adolescent trajectories as a control variable.   

Key findings/results:

The findings of this analysis are still provisional.

Implication of findings/relevance to policy:

This paper seeks to influence core justice policies and operational practices around the impact of ACEs on offending and criminal justice contact.  This includes current developments within Police Scotland (e.g. trauma informed policing) and the Scottish Prison Service (e.g. the design of facilities built from a trauma-informed perspective).  We seek to show how different underlying factors can impact differentially on a person’s criminal and justice career, and how ACEs intersects with other aspects of vulnerability and disadvantage to shape young people’s offending pathways and, in turn, how this shapes the extent and nature of their involvement in the criminal justice system as they enter adulthood. 

If you have any questions about this research, please contact Professor Susan McVie. 


Research Team