Examining the crime drop in Scotland

Like many other western countries, the number of recorded crimes and offences in Scotland has seen a dramatic reduction since the early 1990s. A key aim of the AQMeN research on crime and victimisation was to examine the crime drop in Scotland, comparing and contrasting the trends in different types of crimes and offences, and to establish how this was connected to other social, economic, criminal justice and demographic factors.

We have written a number of papers that focus on the crime drop in Scotland, as outlined below.

(1) Changing trends in crime and justice in Scotland (McVie)
Patterns and trends in crime need to be understood within the wider context of the changing nature of social order in Scotland, including policies on crime control and the institutional structures of governance. In this chapter, we take a historical perspective to understanding the crime drop and focus, in particular, on events since devolution as this has been one of the most active periods of both social and political change. We review the evolution of criminal justice policy in Scotland and examine key changes in the governance of criminal justice and penal policy. We then explore the range of data sources used to measure crime and map out Scotland’s crime problem at a national level, before studying two forms of crime – crimes of dishonesty and non-sexual crimes of violence – in more detail, paying close attention to change over time, spatial variation and how Scotland compares internationally. We conclude with some speculations as to the future of crime, law and order and what it means for Scottish society.
• McVie, S. (2017) Social order: Crime and Justice in Scotland. In D. McCrone (Ed) The New Sociology of Scotland. Sage Publications Ltd.

(2) Temporal dependence of covariates on aggregate measures of crime in Scotland (Humphreys, Francis and McVie)
It is important to study change in crime rather than just falling crime, because understanding what drove an increase in crime rates is as important as what has led to a reduction. We examined crimes of dishonesty, non-sexual crimes of violence, motor vehicle offences and miscellaneous offences (including common assault) as these account for 80-90% of all crimes/offences per annum. We find two peaks in the data – an early one driven by crime and a later one driven by offences. To examine the trends in more detail, we use GLM assuming a quasi-poisson distribution to model crime count data from 1985-2012. A range of explanatory variables are included in the modelling, including measures of: punishment, policing, demographic change, economic development and other factors. Our findings show that differential explanations are required for changes in different crime types, and that the relationship between some explanatory variables and crime trends is not temporally stable.
Humphreys, L., Francis, B. and McVie, S. (2014) Understanding the crime drop in Scotland. AQMeN Research Briefing 1, November 2014.
• Humphreys, L., Francis, B. and McVie, S. (in progress) ‘Temporal dependence of covariates on aggregate measures of crime in Scotland: comparing and contrasting crime and offence types’.

(3) Transformations in Youth Crime and Justice across Europe (McAra and McVie)
Across many European and other western jurisdictions, the crime drop has been associated with a dramatic decline in arrests, convictions and imprisonment amongst young people. This raises important questions about the extent to which the shrinking youth justice client group reflects real behavioural change or system effects. There are many challenges to addressing these questions, not least a lack of robust comparative data (both within jurisdictions over time, and across jurisdictions). However, using Scotland and England/Wales as case studies, we examine evidence from a range of data sources to better understand the transformation in youth crime and justice (which we are confident is similar to other European countries). We make four key claims: the reduction in youth offending is mainly due to a ‘displacement effect’ rather than real behavioural change; youth justice institutions have not fully adapted to the transformations in youth offending which creates a ‘cultural dissonance effect’; a consequence is that fewer young people are processed through systems, but there is a ‘concentration effect’ which impacts mostly on deprived and vulnerable youths: and the only way to achieve a ‘whole system effect’ which reduces rates of reconviction is to apply an integrated diversionary approach to offender management.
McAra, L. and McVie, S. (2017) The shrinking youth justice population: A change in behaviour or a change in the system? Scottish Justice Matters, 5(1): 38-39.
• McAra, L. and McVie, S. (forthcoming) Transformations in Youth Crime and Justice across Europe: Evidencing the Case for Diversion. In B. Goldson (Ed) Juvenile Justice in Europe: Past, Present and Future.

Policy relevance:
The research we have conducted in this area of work is relevant to policy-makers and practitioners seeking to understand the factors which affect increases and decreases in crime in its wider policy context. In particular, our work is of relevance to those interested in how changes in criminal justice policies or processes might influence the nature of crime and the characteristics of those entering youth or criminal justice systems. We are working with Scottish Government to influence the development of future justice strategies and policies that take account of the dramatic transformation in crime over recent decades.


Susan McVie

Brian Francis

Les Humphreys