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The Edinburgh Study: causes and impacts of criminal justice pathways

Researchers: Professor Lesley McAra | Professor Susan McVie

By Nuffield Foundation

Project overview

This study will explore the causes of early contact with the criminal justice system and its impacts on individuals’ longer-term life chances. It will investigate what causes people to have different patterns of criminal conviction, whether early conviction helps people to stop offending, and what impact changes in criminal justice policy have on patterns of conviction.

UK jurisdictions have seen a significant drop in criminal convictions in young people under 24, but rates have increased significantly in those over 30. The rising average age of conviction, its contexts, and causes, are under-researched phenomena. In addition, very little is known about the long-term impacts of contact with the criminal justice system on individuals’ well-being and life chances.

This project will look at these impacts on individuals in early, mid, and older adulthood, taking into account different policy eras and contexts. It will build on the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime, a longitudinal study following a cohort of 4,300 young people who started secondary school in Edinburgh in 1998.

The first phase will involve secondary analysis of data from the Edinburgh Study, developing a typology of criminal conviction pathways for the cohort. Using multinomial logistic regression, the researchers will identify factors during adolescence most associated with the patterns of criminality. The researchers will carry out parallel analyses of data from the Scottish Offenders Index to test the wider applicability of their findings.

The second stage will involve quantitative and qualitative data collection exploring the experiences and outcomes of offenders from each conviction pathway. The researchers will use propensity score matching to control for a range of socio-demographic variables and prior offending history in order to isolate the effects of early contact with the criminal justice system.

The final stage will investigate whether conviction pathways have changed as youth justice policy has moved from a punitive to a diversion-focussed approach. To do this, the study will compare the trajectories of the Edinburgh Study cohort to two further cohorts from the Scottish Offenders Index born in 1976 and 1992.

This research will deliver robust and timely empirical evidence to inform and widen policy debate on offender management and preventative strategies through a series of co-produced briefing papers.


  • Professor Lesley McAra
    School of Law, University of Edinburgh
  • Professor Susan McVie
    School of Law, University of Edinburgh
By Nuffield Foundation

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We aim to improve people’s lives by funding research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare and Justice. We also fund student programmes that give young people skills and confidence in science and research.

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