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Raising the age of criminal responsibility in Scotland and reducing youth offending

Findings from the acclaimed Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime (ESYTC), directed by Professors Lesley McAra and Susan McVie, were key to encouraging the Scottish Parliament to increase the age of criminal responsibility in Scotland from 8-years to 12-years.  The study also formed the evidence base for a radical overhaul of the youth justice system, which led to the lowest number of young people being convicted or sent to prison since 1972.

Child behind bars

The ESYTC is a prospective longitudinal study of pathways into and out of offending amongst a cohort of approximately 4,300 young people who started secondary education in the City of Edinburgh in 1998. Findings from the study strongly support policies that avoid the criminalisation of young people through increasing the age of criminal responsibility to internationally agreed minimum standards.  The findings also support diversionary policies that keep young people away from formal criminal justice measures and imprisonment, and encourage educational inclusion and social justice models of intervention.

Age of criminal responsibility

The Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Act 2019 marked a radical change in juvenile justice and brought Scotland more into line with international standards than England & Wales. ESTYC findings played a significant role in informing and guiding the recommendations of the Scottish Government Advisory Group on Age of Criminal Responsibility. Professors McAra and McVie were also key contributors to both an independent inquiry launched by Action for Children and the Scottish Children’s Commissioner and evidence sessions convened by the Equalities and Human Rights Committee of the Scottish Parliament. As a result, their work is widely considered to have provided irrefutable evidence that setting the age of criminal responsibility at 8 years of age was morally and empirically unsupportable, and was a key catalyst for increasing it to 12 years of age.

Youth justice strategies

ESTYC findings formed the basis of the Scottish Government’s national ‘Youth Justice Strategy 2015-20’, which sought to improve the life chances of children and young people up to age 21. According to the Strategy, “Findings from the [ESYTC] tell us that: serious offending is linked to a broad range of vulnerabilities and social adversity; early identification of at-risk children runs the risk of labelling and stigmatising; pathways out of offending are affected by critical moments in the early teenage years. In particular, school inclusion and diversionary strategies facilitate the desistance process. This strategy is founded on a shared commitment to dealing with the issues raised by that evidence.”

In addition, ESYTC evidence formed an essential part of the evidence base for the design of the Scottish Prison Service’s new ‘Vision for Young People in Custody’ and informed staff training and implementation. The Vision aims to ensure that time spent in custody by young people enables them to prepare for a positive future.

Following implementation of these initiatives, national statistics show major reductions in the number of young people aged under 21 entering the criminal justice system, including a 34% reduction in convictions in the Scottish courts between 2014/15 and 2018/19 and a 45% reduction in imprisonment between 2014/15 and 2019/20. These are the lowest numbers since comparable records began in 1972.