The 20-year Edinburgh study of 4,300 young people shaped the Scottish Parliament bill to raise the age of criminal responsibility from eight to 12 years, and underpins a radical change in policy to counter youth offending.

Impacts

  • Research findings shaped the 'Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Bill' which was passed by the Scottish Parliament in May 2019, raising the age of criminal responsibility (ACR) from eight to 12 years of age. The accompanying policy memorandum directly referred to the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime (ESYTC), which was the only academic research cited.
  • ESYTC has over the last decade changed political debate from emphasising a punitive approach that criminalises youth offending, to a 'Whole System Approach' that seeks to keep young people out of the justice system and prioritise other services and support – and is associated with significant reductions in youth offending and incarceration.
  • The Scottish Government-appointed Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility Advisory Group extensively used ESYTC findings to inform debate and support its recommendation to raise the ACR to age 12 as a minimum.
  • ESYTC was a key source of evidence for the 2018 Kilbrandon Again independent enquiry into Scotland's support for children and young people in trouble, which also recommended raising the ACR.

"There's no doubt that the study by McAra and McVie has been the most influential academic research into youth justice in the 30 years I've been working in this area. The findings influenced significantly the approach to working with young people in trouble." (Paul Carberry, Action for Children Director for Scotland)

About the research

In May 2019 the Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Bill was passed in the Scottish Parliament, raising the age limit from 8 to 12 years. The Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime (ESYTC) provided key evidence for the Bill – showing that criminalisation of vulnerable children at a young age increases the risk of repeat offending, ongoing involvement with the youth justice system and, eventually, transition into adult criminality.

Over the last two decades the ESYTC study, led by Professor Lesley McAra and Professor Susan McVie at the University of Edinburgh Law School, has been following the lives of 4,300 12-year-olds who started secondary education in Edinburgh in 1998. By linking data from the survey, interviews and administrative data, the researchers explored young people's pathways in and out of youth offending. They tracked individuals' development over their life course, interactions with agencies such as the police and courts, and the impact of the physical and social structure of the neighbourhoods where young people lived.

Evidence from the study underpinned the Scottish Government's 'Whole System Approach' to working with young people who offend, which was piloted in 2008 and rolled out as a national programme in 2011 to all 32 unitary authorities. This was followed by dramatic reductions in youth offending and in the number of young people convicted in court and sent to custody.

The ESYTC's impact on raising the age of criminal responsibility is the culmination of a longstanding engagement programme. Compared to 2006, annual figures now show that:

  • 23,000 fewer people under 21 are convicted in the Scottish courts
  • 14,000 fewer children are referred on offence crimes to the juvenile justice system
  • 3,000 fewer people under 21 are sent to custody.

"Not only have the ESYTC findings been drawn on directly to inform the ACR Bill, they have also impacted on a wider range of justice policies and practice over many years," says Professor McVie.

"The impact of the study would not have been possible without the contribution of our cohort. In generously sharing their own stories, they have helped shape a progressive policy framework in Scotland which has and will continue to benefit many thousands of children," adds Professor McAra.