Criminal convictions of Scottish teenagers have significantly declined in recent decades amid a general drop in crime nationwide, according to researchers at the University of Edinburgh School of Law.
Convictions of 16-20 year old men in Scotland plunged by 63 per cent since 1989. From a starting point of 9500 convictions per 100,000 male youths in 1989, the conviction rate in 2011 fell to 3,500 per 100,000 for that age group.
Convictions of 21-25 year old men declined by 29 per cent over the same period.
The research also found an encouraging shift in conviction patterns: once hovering at 18 years old, the peak age of male convictions has now increased to 23.
The peak conviction age for women saw an even greater change, skyrocketing from 18 to 30.
Coupled with the decline in convictions, the data suggests a greater proportion of young Scots turning away from a criminal lifestyle. The trend appears generational: despite the gains made in younger demographics, conviction rates for over-25 year olds were stagnant.
Exactly what accounts for the positive statistics remains unclear.
One factor may be better protection of houses and cars against break-ins, suggests Professor Susan McVie, director of the Applied Quantitative Methods Network (AQMeN), the university branch behind the research.
Pointing to findings in the study denoting particular drops in property crimes and violent crimes, McVie has a simple causative theory. As residents take more security precautions, property crimes are foiled and prosecuted more.
Youths are thus deprived of a gateway to more serious crimes, through what McVie calls “debut” crimes. Violent crimes subsequently plummet.
“With fewer people committing these debut crimes, it is possible that there may be fewer people getting involved in violent crime as a result of that,” she said in a statement. Changes to the youth justice system may also be responsible for the crime drop.
Professor McVie cites initiatives aimed at keeping children out of the justice system as long as possible, such as the Getting it Right for Every Child policy, implemented by the Scottish government over the past decade.
The programmes establish youth intervention sessions in place of dire courtroom procedures for young offenders, a strategy seen as effective in getting through to teens and pre-empting further crimes.
“These activities have significantly helped to keep children away from formal youth justice interventions at an early age, which is known to contribute to early and sustained criminal careers in some young people,” McVie explained to The Student.
The Centre for Youth and Criminal Justice (CYCJ), a University of Strathclyde research group specialising in the youth justice system, concurred with McVie’s conclusions.
Referring to the research, CYCJ director Claire Lightowler told The Student:
“This picture is consistent with evidence emerging from other sources but it’s not clear why we’ve seen this decrease in offending by young people in Scotland.
“However, we do know that when children and young people can be kept out of the justice system and in education or employment they are more likely to stop offending.”
Despite the favourable character, researchers were careful to urge carefulness.
McVie cautioned against complacency arising from the study, referencing further studies released by AQMeN that despite an overall crime decrease, traditional hotbeds of criminal activity continue to exhibit disproportionate levels of violence:
“The drop in crime has meant that victimisation has become more concentrated in some, mainly high deprivation,communities,”she told The Student, urging special attention be devoted to those areas.
The lead researcher for the study, Ben Matthews, also warned against over-extrapolating causes: “People often like to talk about moving towards causality or explaining things—and hopefully there will be some of that—but at present it’s quite a descriptive study,” Matthews told The Student.
Matthews, who carried out his analyses with data from the Scottish Offenders index, hopes to conduct further research that could provide those answers.
In particular, he hopes to eventually be able to track offenders over time to better understand the causative factors that affect criminal behaviour.
“We are cautiously optimistic, but more research is required,” he said.