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Professor Lesley McAra

Professor Lesley McAra profile picture

Professor of Penology


Tel: +44 (0)131 650 2036


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Lesley McAra is an alumna of the University of Edinburgh and of the Open University. She began her career as a researcher in the Scottish Office where she led a major programme of research evaluating social work criminal justice services. In 1995, she joined the University of Edinburgh as Lecturer in Criminology, was promoted to Senior Lecturer in 2005, and to the Chair of Penology in 2009. Her inaugural lecture can be listened to here.

Lesley is currently the Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH). She is also Assistant Principal Community Relations -  academic lead for the local impact  component of University of Edinburgh strategy.

Lesley was the inaugural Director of the Edinburgh Futures Institute, a new cross-University initiative committed to radical forms of inter-disciplinarity (bringing together the arts, humanities and social sciences with data science, engineering, the natural sciences and medicine), co-design and coproduction (empowering and working in partnership with communities, as well as collaborating with industry and governments), and data driven innovation.

A former Dean of the School of Law, Lesley was the first woman to be appointed to that post. In 2014 she founded (with alumna, Karina McTeague) the Leadership Foundation for Women in Law. She was also the founder of the Empirical Legal Research Network, a cross-University forum aimed at facilitating partnership-working across different disciplines, pooling expertise and functioning as a resource bank for researchers at all levels of career

In 2018, Lesley was elected as President of the European Society of Criminology and, following her term of office, she continued to play a major role in the Society as part of its Executive Board (in 2021) and as a member of the working groups on Juvenile Justice and Crime, Criminal Justice and the Covid-19 Pandemic.

Lesley’s research interests lie in the general areas of the sociology of punishment and the sociology of law and deviance. Particular interests include: youth crime and juvenile justice; gender justice and community well-being; the politics of crime control; and comparative criminal justice. She is Co-Director (with Susan McVie) of the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime, a prize-winning longitudinal programme of research on pathways into and out of offending for a cohort of around 4,300 young people. Funded by grants from the ESRC (R00237157, R000239150), the Nuffield Foundation and the Scottish Government, Study findings have been utilised in penal reform campaigns both nationally and internationally and have formed the principal evidence base for a range of youth justice policies in Scotland, including the ‘Whole System Approach’ and the decision to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility.  Lesley is currently a member of the Scottish Government’s Advisory Group on Anti-social Behaviour and the Community Confidence Group, set up as part of the Scottish Government’s review of the age of criminal responsibility in Scotland. She has also been a member of the Youth Justice Board’s Academic Liaison Network (Ministry of Justice, UK Government). A former Editor-in-Chief (with Ursula Kilkelly) of the journal Youth Justice, Lesley is currently Co-Editor (with Alison Liebling and Shadd Maruna) of the Oxford Handbook of Criminology.

In 2013, Lesley was a joint winner (with Susan McVie) of the Howard League for Penal Reform Research Medal which celebrates high quality research from ‘new thinking’ and ‘radical researchers’ who have changed penal policy and practice. This was followed in 2016 with the Chancellor’s award for research impact which honours colleagues at the University of Edinburgh whose outstanding research has made a demonstrable contribution to society. And in 2019, she was the winner (with Susan McVie) of the ESRC prize for Outstanding Public Policy Impact.  She was awarded a CBE, in the New Year's Honours List 2018, for services to Criminology and elected as Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2021.

Lesley’s previous teaching experience has covered several criminology courses at undergraduate and postgraduate level including the MSc in Criminology and Criminal Justice. She welcomes applications from doctoral candidates in any area of her expertise.