No-one is saying that poor people commit more crime, or even that poverty causes crime. But the best study we have on the background of children who commit crime, shows a very strong correlation between poverty and violent crime. Professors Lesley McAra and Susan McVie of Edinburgh University are responsible for the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime, a ground breaking study which has followed the lives of 4,300 children as they made the transition from childhood to adulthood. Already this study has shown the negative effect of formal engagement with the criminal justice system – the “labelling” effect. Now it has found that “poverty is a strong driver of violent offending amongst young people”. Using four measures for poverty including low socio-economic status of the head of the household and neighbourhood deprivation, the Professors found that “poverty had a significant and direct effect on young people’s likelihood to engage in violence at 15, even after controlling for a range of other factors”, positive and negative, including poor family functioning, drug use, impulsiveness, strong relationships with parents.
Why is there such a strong link between poverty and violent crime? The Professors think that violence is part of the identity of poor young people. But they also think the system exacerbates the link. In Scotland, children who offend are dealt with by children’s hearing panels, which are supposed to look at the root causes of offending and support the child’s rehabilitation. But poor teenagers are more likely to be charged by the police, and more likely to be placed on statutory supervision by a panel. The Professors conclude that “the youth and adult criminal justice systems appear to punish the poor and reproduce the very conditions that entrench people in poverty and make violence more likely”.
This is difficult reading for anyone who puts faith in the criminal justice system itself to reduce offending, or for anyone interested in reducing crime. If the correlation is in fact causation, this means that the alleviation of poverty offers one of the best ways of reducing offending. Reducing poverty is a huge task in an age of austerity, while both criminal justice and welfare budgets are being cut.