Breaking the links between poverty and offending

‘Poverty is real and standards of living are likely to fall further.’ As Scotland’s Child Poverty Delivery Plan is launched, Maureen Roberts reflects on why it’s more important than ever to break the links between deprivation and offending behaviour.

Since being seconded to CYCJ in 2021, I’ve been amazed at the breadth of consultation requests we are invited to respond to. I didn’t quite appreciate how many policies, new legislation, or responses to changes in practice were out there that could impact on children and young people in conflict with the law, their families, and communities. Our responses to consultations mean we can advocate for child-friendly justice and ensure that the rights of our children and young people in conflict with the law are at the forefront of what we do.

One of the first consultations I was involved with was a response to the Scottish Government’s Child Poverty Delivery Plan 2022 – 2026 towards the end of 2021. This, alongside the constant reminders on TV and social media about the cost-of-living crisis prompted me to write this blog. As a first-time blogger and new recruit to CYCJ, it is quite daunting to consider writing about a massive issue like poverty. Although writing about it is nowhere near as daunting as having to live and experience what poverty and deprivation brings to children, young people, and their families every day in Scotland. Looking further throws up dark figures that don’t seem to fit in a time of smart phones, online shopping, and electric cars when those in our most deprived areas are:

  • 18 times more likely to have a drug-related death
  • 4 times more likely to have an alcohol related death
  • 3 times more likely to suffer death by suicide
  • Outlived by over 20 years from someone born in least deprived communities.

The stats don’t improve as I delve deeper into levels of poverty and risks to households where there are children living with a single parent, disability, small babies aged under 1 year, or within a minority ethnic home (National Records of Scotland, 2021; Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2021).

COVID and associated public health measures affected those from deprived communities who were more likely to live in overcrowded households without access to outdoor spaces and potentially more likely to be exposed to the virus. Combine this with blocks of missing education, isolation from friends and family, anxiety and loss on top of reduced access to exercise, food and digital devices means our children and young people have experienced issues none of us have seen in our lifetime. Most children and young people who experience poverty do not come into conflict with the law. Nevertheless, research undertaken during lockdown found that one fifth of Police Fixed Penalty Notices were issued to children and young people under the age of 21 years and were 12 times more likely to be given to those from most deprived areas (McVie and Matthews, 2021).

Deprivation and inequality are forms of adversity which can lead to bullying, victimisation, truancy, exclusion, entering care – regardless of seriousness or frequency of offending behaviour compared to peers from less deprived areas, and are exacerbated by the involvement of social work and the justice system (McAra and McVie, 2010).  More recently, Jahanshahi, Murray & McVie (2021) showed that living in persistent poverty where children and young people experience deprivation continues to be a key predictor of childhood offending and, Gibson (2020, 2021) found substantial rates of relative poverty and deprivation in his research of our most vulnerable children in secure care. So, this is nothing new. The Promise highlighted the need to address losses caused by system failure, such as the impact on children continuing to be placed in young offender institutions instead of secure care – or appropriate community alternatives to manage risk and safety with deprivation of liberty only ever used as a last resort. The Howard League published a report in 2021 highlighting the impact of remand on children as they are less likely to have access to programmes or family visits (particularly so during the pandemic) and the negative repercussions this has on release in terms of mental and physical health, employment, and relationships. These children are subsequently more likely to face poverty and homelessness if such opportunities have been diminished whilst in a YOI as opposed to a community-based alternative.

Investing in our most deprived communities could reduce the occurrence of adverse childhood experiences and subsequent pathways into the justice system for our children and young people. Additionally, decriminalising minor offences could reduce the number of children coming into conflict with the law and the detrimental effect this has on future outcomes around health, employment, and overall citizenship. It could also reduce unnecessary spend on justice processes which do not effectively or efficiently address underlying needs associated with deprivation such as hunger, trauma, isolation, victimisation, or mental health, with resources channelled to where most needed.

Therefore, increasing the number of incidents that can be diverted through cost effective, and often more effective means than prosecution in court could have a significant impact on reducing poverty and deprivation. Given this, it is a big step forward to see the widening of criteria for measures such as Diversion from Prosecution since the guidance was refreshed in 2020 and recent inclusion of Recorded Police Warnings incorporating drug possession offences.

We are bombarded daily about the increasing cost of gas and electricity, food, council tax and the overall cost of living – not to mention COVID and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Poverty is real and standards of living are likely to fall further, which all feels like just the tip of the iceberg. With the Poverty and Inequality Commission (2022) advising the Scottish Government they are not going to meet the interim or final targets set in their 2022 – 2026 plan,  I have to agree with Jahanshahi, Murray & McVie (2021), that given our present low levels of crime, now could be an opportunity to focus on adversity and poverty as indicators of offending to try and improve outcomes for our children and young people as this could eventually break the links between childhood offending and poverty in adulthood (McAra and McVie, 2022).

About our blogger

Maureen Roberts is seconded to CYCJ as a Practice Development Advisor with a focus on the new postgraduate certificate for children in conflict with the law.

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