Over the last two decades, the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime has followed around 4,300 young people transitioning from childhood to adulthood. Using this, and other administrative data, Lesley McAra and Susan McVie argue that systems of youth and adult justice, far from tackling violence and lifting young people out of poverty, serve instead to entrench them in it. Since poverty is a strong driver of violent offending amongst young people, this reproduces the very conditions in which it can flourish.
Many studies have found a correlation between poverty and violence. The Edinburgh Study provides further strong evidence that children living in poverty are over-represented amongst violent offenders. But after taking into account this increased risk of offending, children from poor backgrounds are disproportionately selected into the juvenile justice system and retained there by decision-making that is predicated on, amongst other things, their impoverished status.
Importantly, our study showed that poverty had a significant and direct effect on young people’s likelihood to engage in violence at age 15, even when controlling for the effects of a range of other factors known to influence violent behaviour. We took into account a raft of risk indicators expected to increase the propensity to engage in violence (including poor family functioning, lack of attachment to school, substance misuse, and impulsivity) and a range of protective factors that are known to be preventative (such as strong and positive relationships with parents). And yet we still found that young people living in a family where the head of household was unemployed or in low status manual employment, and those growing up in a community scarred by high levels of deprivation, are significantly more likely to engage in violence.
Our findings are supportive of a theory of offending based on the concept of negotiated order. For young people from the most impoverished backgrounds, violence provides a touchstone against which identities are honed. More particularly, violence empowers and becomes a means of attaining and sustaining status amongst peers. Willingness to use violence, therefore, becomes a resource for the most dispossessed and, as we suggest below, this is a constant feature across the teenage years.
Institutional responses exacerbate poverty and violence
Our study is based in Scotland, where the juvenile justice system is predicated on a needs-based educational model of care. One might expect that where poverty is identified as a specific need and linked to offending, then the children’s hearings system would be able to access services and support for young people, which would help lift them out of poverty. However Edinburgh Study findings indicate that this is manifestly not the case.
Our findings show that at every age through the teenage years and into adulthood, the decision-making practices of institutions (including the police, the hearings and the criminal courts), disproportionately focus on young people from impoverished backgrounds.
The longitudinal nature of our study allowed us to track the outcome of early contacts with youth justice on the behaviour, social status and well-being of young people in later years. We found that much the strongest predictor of NEET (not being in education, employment of training) status was whether the young person had ever been charged by the police for an offence and whether they had ever been placed on supervision via the hearing system. This held true when other factors linked to risk of NEET status were taken into account (including low socio-economic status in early childhood, and a range of school and family factors). Moreover, both low socio-economic status in early childhood and being placed on supervision by the hearing system were significantly associated with continued involvement in violence at age 18 (even when controlling for a range of risk and protective factors).
Given the strong links between vulnerability, adversity and violence, these findings highlight the need to treat young people involved in violence first and foremost as vulnerable children rather than as offenders. The association between violence and poverty needs to be tackled at both a family and a neighbourhood level.
The system causes structural failures that prevent those in poverty from moving out of this condition and, in the longer term, this constrains opportunities and reduces life-chances, such that these young people are at increased risk of criminal justice system intervention and NEET status in early adulthood. In other words the youth and adult criminal justice systems appear to punish the poor in particular and reproduce the very conditions that entrench people in poverty and make violence more likely.
The violence-poverty nexus is not new (it has been identified in many research studies prior to the Edinburgh Study). That it contributes to loss of status for young people who resort to violence as a means of retaining a sense of self-worth is but one principal reason for tackling deprivation in a way that is both effective and sustained over the longer-term. Wider social, economic and educational policies are needed to address the issues of deprivation: such policies would do much to reduce violence.
Please note: this blog is based on the journal paper ‘Understanding youth violence: The mediating effects of gender, poverty and vulnerability’ published Open Access in the Journal of Criminal Justice.
About the Authors
Lesley McAra is Chair of Penology at the University of Edinburgh. With Susan McVie and David Smith she is is Co-Director of the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime. She is currently a member of the Centre for Law and Society and is on the management board of the Global Justice Academy.
Susan McVie is Professor of Quantitative Criminology at the University of Edinburgh. She is Director of the Applied Quantitative Methods Network (AQMeN) in Scotland, Co-Director of the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime and Leader of the CJ-Quest network for the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research.