Enhancing the effectiveness of youth justice policy and practice


A long-term study of more than 4,300 young people in Edinburgh has had a major impact on Scottish youth justice policy.

What was the problem? 

The Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime (ESYTC) was established in 1997. This study has followed a single cohort of 4,317 young people who started secondary school in Edinburgh in 1998. It seeks to identify the key factors affecting criminal and risky behaviours in young people. Previously, there was no such study of youth in Scotland. This led to a lack of data compared to other countries. It also meant there was very little reliable data available to inform social and justice policy.

Every school in Edinburgh was asked to participate in the survey. This helped to ensure the young people were representative of Edinburgh’s diverse population. It also enabled Professors McAra and McVie to examine a wide range of factors affecting youth offending. As well as self-report surveys from the young people themselves, the study has used police reports, school records, and surveys of parents and teachers.

What did we do? 

The research showed that serious offending in adulthood is linked to a range of social and economic factors in youth. Boys from single-parent households and deprived areas were more likely to be punished by schools or the police than girls or boys from wealthier areas or two-parent families. This suggested that supporting children and families in the most deprived areas could have a real impact in reducing crime.

School exclusion before the age of 12 was also linked to increased chance of imprisonment by the age of 24. This showed that alternatives to school exclusion should address young people’s challenging behaviour in schools. Keeping young people in mainstream education has better results both for them and for society as a whole.

The Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime has been important in providing the underpinning evidence for the approach this Government has taken to youth justice issues.
Kenny MacAskill, Scottish Government's Cabinet Secretary for Justice, June 2012
What happened next? 

The ESYTC is the largest study of youth offending in Scotland, and it has been influential worldwide.

It has directly affected youth justice policy in Scotland. Its findings became the evidence base for the Scottish Government’s ‘Whole System Approach’ for dealing with young offenders.

The Whole System Approach aims to divert young offenders, or young people at risk of offending, away from formal judicial punishments and into activity in the community. This approach has had a major positive effect on youth crime levels in Scotland, and helped to improve the wellbeing of young people.

All but two Local Authorities in Scotland now use the Whole System approach. It was rolled out in 2011 after a positive pilot scheme. The effects were immediate: a 31% reduction in offence referrals between 2010-2011 and 2011-2012. Between 2008-2009 and 2011-2012, the number of recorded crimes by 8-17 year olds also fell by 32%.

The ESYTC’s other major impact has been to change how offences by children are noted on their criminal records. Scotland has one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility in the world – 8 years of age. Evidence from the survey showed how harmful this criminal record could be to children’s futures. It affected their employment prospects, and low employability is one of the biggest factors in whether young offenders go on to re-offend. This evidence was the basis for a change in the law, which means that minor childhood crimes are less likely to be disclosed to future employers.

Confirming the project’s success, McAra and McVie were jointly awarded the Howard League Research Medal in 2013. This prize is given for ‘outstanding research with real-world impact’.

About the researcher(s)

Research unit

Subject area:
  • Studies In Human Society: Criminology


  • Economic and Social Research Council
  • Nuffield Foundation
  • The Scottish Government

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