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Children, Young People and Offending in Scotland - Research Findings

DescriptionThis paper presents the main findings from the Research Review 'Children, Young People and Offending in Scotland'.
ISBN0 7480 6981 X
Official Print Publication Date
Website Publication DateDecember 29, 1998

Crime and Criminal Justice Research Findings No. 21 (1998)

Children, Young People and Offending in Scotland
ISBN 0-7480-6981-x Publisher The Scottish Office Price £5.00

This paper presents the main findings from the Research Review 'Children, Young People and Offending in Scotland' by Asquith et al. The Research Review was commissioned in 1995 by The Scottish Office in order to provide a basis upon which plans for future research, policy and provision could be made, with the ultimate aim of reducing the number of children and young people who become involved in offending and of those who continue to offend.
Main Findings
  • A range of high-risk factors - such as hyperactivity, high impulsivity, low intelligence, poor parental child management, parental neglect, offending parents and siblings, early child bearing, deprived background, absent father, smoking and drug use by the mother during pregnancy - are associated with aggressive, problematic and later delinquent behaviour in children.
  • There appears to be a general continuity between anti-social and deviant behaviour from childhood into adulthood, and childhood behaviour problems, even within the first few years of life, predict later anti-social behaviour, aggression and offending.
  • A very large proportion of crime appears to be committed by a very small number of juvenile delinquents.
  • The adverse effects of many of the risk factors associated with delinquency appear to be negated or diluted, in some instances, by the presence of certain positive factors, particularly a positive home environment and good parental child-rearing practices.
  • Evidence from tried and tested programmes with delinquent children show that it is clearly not the case that 'nothing works'.
  • Cognitive-behavioural approaches (i.e. approaches aimed at changing behaviours, beliefs and thought processes) appear to be most effective. Approaches include: contingent reinforcement; self-reinforcement and family contracting; covert sensitisation; shame aversion therapy; reasoning and rehabilitation and social skills training.
  • Punishment based, incarcerative interventions appear to be least effective at reducing recidivism, as isolating young offenders from their family and community supports can be destructive and may inhibit the maturation process which generally results in movement away from criminal and delinquent activity.
  • Family structures and relationships have changed substantially in recent years and there are many pressures facing children, young people and their families. These must be taken into account when considering responses to offending behaviour.
  • Scotland lacks a systematic and comprehensive process for gathering important information on children and young people.
  • A wide range of strategies on, and responses to, offending behaviour by children and young people exists in Scotland. However, these services have not been planned comprehensively or systematically and provision is patchy.
  • There is a lack of knowledge about female offending and involvement of ethnic minorities in crime in Scotland.
Although this project was undertaken within the restrictions of a 6 month time-scale it makes a significant contribution to the literature on and understanding of offending by children and young people in Scotland.
The full report comprises 4 sections: a Literature Review; a Statistical Review; an Audit of Policies and Programmes; and Conclusions and Points for Consideration. The same structure has been adopted in this summary of findings.
Literature Review (Nicola Loughran)
The principal purpose of the literature review was to provide detailed analysis of the established range of factors and processes which can significantly affect young people's behaviour and influence whether or not they engage in problematic behaviour as they grow up.
Despite examining a wide selection of literature from a number of disciplines, the review found that there was remarkable consistency with which certain findings and observations recur and, equally, the frequency with which certain policy recommendations relating to young people are advocated.
The literature emphasises that a very large proportion of crime appears to be committed by a very small number of juvenile delinquents. These persistent young offenders tend to be well known to social services but more often have come to attention through social welfare problems, not for offending.
A range of high-risk factors - such as hyperactivity, high impulsivity, low intelligence, poor parental child management, parental neglect, offending parents and siblings, early child bearing, deprived background, absent father, maternal substance use in pregnancy - are associated with aggressive, problematic and later delinquent behaviour in children. The literature suggests that such factors are cumulative in effect and tend to coincide.
Furthermore, the literature demonstrates that problematic behaviours identified in troublesome pre-school children typically persist and worsen on reaching school age, therefore a strategy of prevention which targets the early life experiences of children and, in particular, pre-school children, is advocated.
As well as identifying the risk factors associated with delinquent behaviour, the literature suggests that the adverse effects of many of these risk factors appear to be negated or diluted, in some instances, by the presence of certain positive factors. For example, the 'insulatory' effects of a good home environment with warm, supportive social and family networks has been noted to counter the effects of parental disharmony, hyperactivity and low socio-economic status. Likewise, parental-training programmes are advocated as being able to help break the cycle of troublesome behaviour.
The literature recognises that programmes which increase children's school success should also decrease their offending behaviour.
No single approach is guaranteed to work as a means of reducing recidivism amongst young offenders. However, methods designed to produce behavioural change based on some form of positive reinforcement work better overall than purely punitive strategies.
A Statistical and Survey Review
A range of statistical data on different aspects of children's and young people's lives was gathered in order to provide a context for the literature on offending. This was supplemented by a review of survey material which provides qualitative and experiential data relating to the lives of children and young people.
Statistical Review (Maureen Buist)
The statistical data were derived mainly from Scottish Office Bulletins, together with information gathered from local authorities, the police, the General Register Office and voluntary organisations working with children and young people.
On the basis of this exercise, the researchers concluded that Scotland lacks a systematic and comprehensive source from which important information on children and young people can be gathered.
Family structures and relationships have changed substantially in recent years and there are many pressures facing children, young people and their families. These must be taken into account when considering responses to offending behaviour.
Scotland has an ageing and declining population. The number of live births in Scotland has been declining for a number of years, dropping from 65,000 in 1983 to 63,000 in 1993. The number of children born to mothers under the age of 21 years has also declined in this period. One of the main differences between the two decades is that in 1983, 50% of mothers aged under 20 years were married, compared to only 11.5% in 1993.
Recent population estimates reveal that children and young people under the age of 21 years form 26.5% of the population, a decline since 1991 when they formed 27% and an even greater decline since 1983 when they formed 30.8%.
The 1991 Census showed that the total number of families in Scotland with dependant children was 60,492, of whom 74% were married couples, 4% cohabiting couples and 21% lone parents. Most lone parents were women.
In 1994 over a quarter of children aged under 16 years in Scotland lived in families dependent on income support, the largest single group being lone parent families.
Information from the Department of Social Security reveals that there are an additional 52,000 children living in families in receipt of Housing Benefit only, which suggests that they are the children of low paid workers.
Numbers of pupils staying on at school after the minimum leaving age continue to rise as do the number of young people obtaining 5 or more Highers, but young people from poorer families are less likely to gain qualifications or go on to higher education.
In 1983 15,529 children were received into care in Scotland, a figure which had fallen to 12,670 by 1991. In 50% of cases, being received into care meant being made the subject of a home supervision requirement by the Children's Hearings, often as a result of a lack of parental care or the commission of offences.
The number of children referred to Reporters on offence grounds has fallen in recent years but, at present, little information is publicly available on the nature of the offences committed.
Survey Review (Cathlin Macaulay)
Unplanned pregnancies form a higher proportion of pregnancies to teenagers than other women. The highest number of conceptions and births to teenagers tends to occur among those living in the most socio-economically disadvantaged areas, often inner city and urban areas.
Recent surveys of child care in Scotland have revealed that provision of public facilities for children under 5 is poor, particularly in rural areas. Private provision, where it exists, tends to be expensive.
An estimated 9,000 to 10,000 children and young people are reported to the police as running away from home or care in Scotland each year.
Domestic violence is one of the most prevalent violent crimes. In Scotland in 1993/94 there were 6,918 requests to Women's Aid for refuge space - 2,757 women and 4,230 children were accommodated and 4,161 women and 6,018 children could not be found accommodation when they requested it.
Research suggests that sexual abuse affects girls more than boys with about three quarters of victims being female. The abusers are overwhelmingly male and tend to be known to the victim. About half of victims reported being abused repeatedly.
Ethnic Minorities
The experiences of ethnic minority children and young people in Scotland have not been well documented. Although there is a small amount of information in more general reports, much more research is needed.
A 1992 survey showed that by the age of 15 almost all children (95%) had tasted alcohol, with 16% of 13 year olds and 28% of 15 year olds drinking at least once a week. As many as 55% of 12 to 16 year olds had tried Cannabis, and 20-25% had tried LSD or amphetamines. The use of other drugs was rare.
At least one fifth of 15 year olds smoke and many start at a younger age. At the age of 15 years, more than half of those who smoke, do so daily.
Other health issues which impact on children and young peoples' lives in Scotland include: mental health problems; HIV/AIDS; eating disorders; and asthmatic conditions associated with environmental pollution.
As family and work patterns have changed, leaving home is increasingly seen as one of the main transitions from youth to adulthood. Comparisons between the National Child Development Study carried out at the beginning of the 1980's and the Scottish Young People's Survey carried out at the end of the 1980's indicate that fewer teenagers are leaving home to form a partnership, more are going into training/education and about the same proportion leave to take up work.
Children who have been in care form a disproportionate number of homeless people. About a quarter of people who presented as homeless in 1992/93 were aged under 25 years; and 7% were aged 16/17 years. In contrast to the main 'pull' factors which lead young people to choose to leave the family home, the main reasons given by homeless young people related to 'push' factors - over half gave their main reason as family problems.
The proportion of school leavers who gain qualifications at school has risen steadily in Scotland.
Between 1988 and 1992 there was a 9% increase in the number of school leavers who remained in full time education; a 6% increase in those who became unemployed; a 4% decrease in the number who entered a full time job and a 10% decrease in the numbers beginning youth training.
Income, Employment and Training
Over a third (38%) of Scottish children up to 16 years of age live in households where the income is below half the average income (after housing costs). This increases to 42% of 5 year olds.
A number of studies have revealed that 'hanging around' and watching television are the most commonplace pursuits of children and young people in Scotland.
Crime, Offending Behaviour and the Law
Two major surveys of crime and offending behaviour among young people have taken place in Scotland in recent years. The 1989 "Cautionary Tales" study was based on 892 self completion questionnaires returned by pupils from S1 to S4 in 4 schools in Edinburgh. The focus was on young people's lives away from formal adult supervision - their experience of crime outside the home as victims, witnesses and offenders; and their experiences generally in public places. The second major survey of 12-15 year olds took place as an adjunct to the 1993 Scottish Crime Survey. Interviews took place with a representative sample of 495 young people throughout Scotland. The remit was different from the Edinburgh study in that it looked at crime within the school setting as well as that committed in public places.
Half of the young people in the Edinburgh survey said that they had been victims of one or more offences against the person in the previous 9 months and two-thirds reported to having been harassed by someone of 'their own age or a bit older'. Other crimes committed against young people included: sexual harassment; theft; and assault.
In the 9 months prior to the Edinburgh survey, 29% of the young people in the Edinburgh sample admitted property vandalism; 14% admitted car vandalism; 35% admitted shoplifting; and 15% admitted deliberately assaulting or injuring someone.
Half of the young people in the Edinburgh survey had had some form of adversarial contact with the police in the previous 9 months. In general, attitudes towards the police were not good. Only half of the Edinburgh sample thought that the police had a good understanding of the problems that young people faced (49%) or thought the police treated young people fairly (54%).
A considerable proportion of the Scottish Crime Survey sample reported witnessing crime, the boys seeing more crimes than the girls. The main crime witnessed was fighting outwith the family (57% boys; 37% girls).
Respondents to the Scottish Crime Survey generally rated crime as a bigger worry than other things. Fear of crime was higher among females, urban dwellers, those who went out less without their parents and those with higher educational aspirations.
Audit of Policies and Programmes
(Michael Montgomery)
The purpose of the audit was to identify and categorise the range of polices and programmes which are aimed at children, young people and their families. The main focus of the audit was on broad social crime prevention.
The research found that a wide range of strategies on, and responses to, offending behaviour by children and young people exist in Scotland. However, these services have not been planned comprehensively or systematically and provision is patchy. Furthermore, while there is a good variety of experimentation locally, very few projects have been thoroughly and independently evaluated in order to assess their effectiveness.
Early Years Intervention
Research shows that pre-fives provision which combines education, child care and play provides a useful tool to tackle disadvantage and promote equality of opportunity for young children. It can also reduce crime in the long term.
The most successful programmes seek to include parents in the curriculum and management of projects and address the needs of the parents as well as those of the children.
Although there is evidence that some good programmes for pre-fives are operating in Scotland, provision is minimal, has not been planned on a comprehensive basis, and is dependant on the goodwill of local authorities. There is also uncertainty about future provision following the recent reorganisation of local government.
The School Years
Although the majority of children in Scotland attend school regularly and complete their education without many difficulties, there is a significant minority of pupils who absent themselves regularly and, by doing so, prejudice their educational futures and become highly vulnerable to the dangers of teenage delinquency and further social alienation.
The social problems associated with truancy tend to continue into adult life: job prospects are sharply reduced; the likelihood of a drift into crime or drug addiction is increased; and the capacity to form stable relationships is impaired.
Most schools now have an anti-bullying strategy. Typically this is tackled through a variety of initiatives which include staff development as well as pupil involvement through questionnaires.
In the most difficult cases, alternative out-of-school provision becomes necessary and in many areas Day Unit facilities are available offering interventions ranging from Intermediate Treatment and Youth Projects to specialised, intensive and occasionally residential teacher support.
Supported self study schemes have developed in Scotland since the late 1980s and early 1990s. These schemes have targeted Areas of Priority Treatment in order to offer pupils a place to study and learn away from the distractions of family life. The schemes aim to increase pupils' attainment of qualifications and improve their chances of employment.
Crime Prevention Panels are by far the biggest single unified approach to raising awareness in schools on the issues of crime prevention and community safety. Approaches can take the form of both information giving and organised activities.
Family Support
Projects which offer family support work take various forms. Examples include: self help classes dealing with parenting skills; communicating with teenagers; and dealing with difficult behaviour. Others aim to encourage and support parents to liaise with their child's school and statutory and voluntary agencies.
Community Initiatives - 16 to 21 year olds
Community initiatives aimed at 16 to 21 year olds can be grouped into preventative and support measures. Examples of preventative measures which exist in Scotland include: information services; youth action projects; detached youth work; peer-led education; Safer Cities initiatives; and community libraries. Examples of support measures which are known to exist in some areas include: city centre initiatives; accommodation initiatives (youth homelessness and preparing young people to leave care and live independently); and employment initiatives.
Formal Measures
All of the above initiatives operate in addition to more formal, well established services for 16 to 21 year olds who have become involved in crime such as Intensive Probation, Cognitive Programmes and Motor Projects.
Conclusion - Guiding Principles
The following guiding principles in the search for alternative means of preventing delinquency and criminal activity have been derived by the research team directly from the themes identified in the 3 elements of the research.
  • The significance of the truly preventative philosophy advocated by the (1967) Kilbrandon Report should be recognised and should underpin a shift in political and criminological will away from tertiary prevention to an approach committed to supporting children and families. This would allow preventative strategies to be accommodated with other elements of the Kilbrandon framework, particularly the Children's Hearing System.
  • The acknowledgement of the increasing marginalisation and alienation of children and young people requires that there be an acceptance of policies and programmes which are committed to integration and social inclusion. The true potential of integrative or inclusive strategies for young people implies that all aspects of a young person's life should be taken into consideration in the attempt to integrate them or include them in mainstream social and political life. Strategies which fail to acknowledge the young person's social environment will inevitably fail and will reinforce alienation, marginalisation and exclusion.
  • Early intervention should be acknowledged as a key guiding principle on which to devise a strategy for preventing crime by children and young people. Not only is there clear and unequivocal evidence that early preventative strategies can reduce delinquent behaviour but they can also inhibit those general risk factors which precipitate other behavioural problems experienced by children and young persons as they mature.
  • Any search for an alternative means for dealing with crime by children and young people must be based on a commitment to a rights based approach. This will not only involve offering young people greater opportunities to have a voice in social and political life (though that is in itself important) but will also promote the acceptance of alterations in the social and political environment in which they live 'as of right'.
This Research Findings, prepared by Heather McKay, Research Consultant to The Scottish Office Central Research Unit Criminology Branch, is based upon research carried out by Stewart Asquith, Maureen Buist, Nicola Loughran, Cathlin Macaulay and Michael Montgomery at the Centre for the Study of the Child and Society, Glasgow University, in 1995. Copies of the full report 'Children, Young People and Offending in Scotland: A Research Review' are available from the Stationery Office at a cost of £10 each.

The report can also be ordered online