Background to the research
1.1 This report presents key findings on gang membership and knife carrying amongst a cohort of young people based on survey data collected by the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime ( ESYTC). The ESYTC is a prospective longitudinal study of pathways into and out of offending which started in 1998 with a cohort of around 4,300 young people in Scotland's capital city (see Smith and McVie 2003). The main aims of the study were: to investigate the factors leading to involvement in offending and desistance from it; to examine the striking contrast between males and females in offending behaviour; to explore the impact on offending of individual development, formal agency interaction and neighbourhood characteristics; and to contribute to practical policies aimed at helping young people to avoid or diminish their offending behaviour. The findings presented in this report are based on self-report data collected over a six year period, from 1998 to 2003, during which the same group of people were surveyed between the ages of 12 and 17.
1.2 The analysis contained in this report was commissioned by the Scottish Government in light of a chronic lack of quantitative data measuring the extent of gang membership and knife crime. Official statistics for recorded crime in Scotland indicate a relatively stable or decreasing trend in most categories of violence over the last thirty years or so; however, the police have no requirement to record group-based offending activity and, therefore, it is impossible to tell how much violence is group or gang related. In any case, the reporting of violent crimes - particularly low level violence amongst young people - is low, so such cases would be unlikely to be reflected in official statistics (Fraser et al 2010). There has never been a national survey of young people in Scotland, whereas there have been numerous such surveys carried out in England and Wales (e.g. the Offending, Crime and Justice Survey and the Youth Lifestyles survey) and Ireland (e.g. the Northern Ireland Crime and Justice Survey and the Irish components of the second International Self-Report Delinquency Study). There is, therefore, no definitive source of information on the extent or nature of youth gangs or knife carrying across the whole of Scotland, or how the characteristics of those who engage in these behaviours varies by geographical location.
1.3 This data deficiency is highlighted in a qualitative study of troublesome youth groups, gangs and knife carrying in Scotland carried out by members of the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research based at the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh during 2009 (see Bannister et al 2010). The research by Bannister and colleagues provides a useful source of reference for this report as it contains a qualitative exploration of the nature of youth gangs and knife carrying in 5 case study locations: Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow and West Dunbartonshire. This qualitative study involved interviewing a wide range of practitioners engaged in delivering services aimed at managing, challenging and reducing these behaviours, as well as conducting interviews with a large sample of young people engaged in youth gangs and knife carrying behaviour.
1.4 The ESYTC is the largest and most comprehensive study of youth offending ever undertaken in Scotland and, due to the careful design of the study, it provides an ideal opportunity to explore issues of gang membership and knife crime. However, it is important to note that its findings do not provide a national estimate of prevalence or frequency of offending. The ESYTC provides valuable longitudinal data about the change in individual young people's affiliation with youth gangs and their involvement in knife carrying over time for one specific cohort; however, there is no available trend data indicating how these problems have changed over time.
1.5 Reference is made to Bannister et al's findings in the concluding chapter of this report; however, comparisons between the two research studies are subject to some limitations. First, the aims and methodologies employed by the ESYTC are very difficult from the aims and methods adopted by Bannister et al, and the working definitions of youth 'gangs' are not directly comparable. Second, the fieldwork for the research studies was not contemporaneous and so there may have been some changes in the youth offending landscape over this time. Finally, the ESYTC research was carried out in only one Scottish city, whereas Bannister et al found some considerable differences in the nature and behaviour of gangs in different geographical locations. Nevertheless, the aims of the two reports, in terms of understanding behaviour and identifying potential points of intervention for knife carriers and gang members, are broadly analogous.
Structure and contents of the report
1.6 The main aim of this report is to provide an account of the knife carrying behaviour and reported gang membership amongst young people between the ages of 13 and 17 using the ESYTC data. Chapter two provides a description of the design and methods of the ESYTC and presents some of the main findings already published from this study relating to gang membership and knife carrying. Chapters three and four present the detailed findings on knife carrying and gang membership, respectively. Each chapter has the same general structure, which starts with a description of the extent and nature of knife carrying and gang membership amongst the ESYTC cohort. Next, each chapter provides a profile of the young people who were engaged in these two forms of behaviour and compares them to other young people who were not. This profile includes an examination of the following background characteristics:
- demographic information (sex and socio-economic status)
- behaviour problems (including involvement in forms of violent and non-violent offending behaviour, drug use and alcohol consumption)
- problems at school (truancy and exclusion)
- problematic peers (peer offending and extent of 'peer influence')
- formal agency contact (including police warnings and charges and offending referrals to the children's hearing system)
- risky leisure activities (such as hanging about in public places and frequenting pubs or clubs)
- and aspects of their own vulnerability (such as being a victim of crime, self-harming, eating disorders, depression and low self-esteem).
1.7 Chapters three and four conclude with a more sophisticated analysis of the main risk factors that emerge in terms of explaining knife carrying and gang membership. The final chapter of the report contains some concluding remarks, highlights the main similarities and differences between these findings and those of the qualitative study conducted by Bannister et al (2010) and identifies some policy implications.