Young Criminal Lives: What can history tell us?

Young offenders in the late 19th Century were far less likely to reoffend than those today, according to the first cradle-to-grave study of youth justice at that time. Pamela Cox, Barry Godfrey, Heather Shore and Zoe Alker discuss their findings.

Training ships on the River Mersey in 1904. Picture credit:

The notion that interventions can and must be evaluated in order to determine ‘what works’ now dominates public policy. But how did Victorian and Edwardian policy-makers and practitioners deal with this question?

Remarkably, we still know very little about the practical workings or longer-term impacts of the early English juvenile justice system. But using innovative digital methods we have been able to reconstruct the lives, families and neighbourhoods of 500 children living within, or at the margins of, the system at that time.

Our findings suggest juvenile reform institutions themselves had a very mixed impact on individual lives. Significantly, though, our study finds very low levels of serious re-offending among 400 juveniles who were sent to reformatory and industrial schools in the north west of England from courts around the UK over a fifty-year period from the 1860s.

Young Criminal Lives is the first cradle-to-grave study of the experiences of some of the thousands of delinquent, difficult and destitute children passing through the system. For the first time, we were able to follow these children on their journey in and out of reform and then though their adulthood and old age.

We centred on institutions celebrated in this period for their pioneering new approaches to child welfare, as well as on others that were investigated for cruelty and scandal. Both were typical of the new kind of state-certified provision offered, from the 1850s on, to children who had committed criminal acts or who were considered ‘vulnerable’ to predation, poverty and the ‘inheritance’ of criminal dispositions.

We compared the outcomes of these 400 children with those of a control group of 100 children who either received non-custodial disposals in the same period or who were siblings of the core cohort and who were not subject to juvenile justice proceedings. Taken together, these 500 reconstructed lives offer rich and original interdisciplinary insights, enabling us to investigate how far the efforts of the ‘child savers’ succeeded.

By today’s standards, most of our core cohort had committed minor offences – mostly petty theft, vagrancy and minor assaults. Some of the younger children had not committed any offences at all. However, many were were described at the time as the ‘most hardened’ or ‘high risk’ young offenders – hence their committal to the notorious naval reformatory training ships moored on the Mersey: the Akbar and the Indefatigable.

Our initial findings, based on close analysis of 250 of our cases, indicate that just 22 per cent among them as well as among the boys and girls sent to Stockport’s industrial schools nearby, went on to re-offend over their life-course – as far as records allow us to determine. Among those, only six per cent went on to become ‘persistent’ offenders.

This stands in sharp contrast with the much higher re-offending rates of young offenders leaving custodial institutions today. Recent Ministry of Justice figures put this at 73 per cent within the first post-release year.

Then and now

Of course, any comparison between past and present reform systems and their ‘successes’ must be offered with extreme caution. Nevertheless, this remains a significant finding and ought to generate vital further debate about the levels of educational, vocational and post-support offered to young offenders today.

Another implication of our work is that there should be much more focus on the social and economic factors that support desistance from crime. Our study does this by analysing the factors contributing to our cohort’s ‘life course desistance’ from crime.

We argue that their desistance can best be explained in terms of the improved life chances created by rising working class living standards from the 1860s to the 1920s, the broad impact of early welfare state interventions within working class communities (notably the reform of state education, public assistance and public health) and the moderating personal influence of regular employment, marriage and parenthood.

We argue that juvenile reform institutions themselves had a very mixed impact on individual lives. On the one hand, they certainly exerted a ‘protective effect’, notably by preparing children for the teen labour market and offering closely supervised post-release work placements – similar to apprenticeships today.

On the other, however, they also exerted a powerfully ‘harmful effect’ through their often violent and brutal regimes, through their lasting associated stigma, and through cumulative disadvantage of ‘official bias’ effects which made a minority of young adults in our cohort more prone to later arrest and/or permanent social exclusion.

At another level, one extreme ‘harmful effect’ was the early death experienced by over 100 of our core cohort in the trenches of the first world war – many having been sent as teenagers straight to the Front from their child-saving institution.

Today, nearly three quarters of young offenders re-offend within a year of being released from custody. Many creative schemes, often involving voluntary sector partnerships, have made inroads into reducing this rate by, for example, through supported apprenticeships – for example the schemes run by the Prince’s Trust. But for these kinds of schemes to be rolled out at the national level would require a common, co-ordinated approach and committed resource. We need a youth justice service – not a series of short-term schemes. Instead we face a situation where that much-needed resource is being increasingly generated by the private security industry and devoted to replacing probation officers with automated probation kiosks.

If our early findings suggest anything, it is that strong personal relationships and economic security reduce re-offending and improve life chances. Perhaps surprisingly, current youth justice policy makers could learn from their Victorian predecessors.