25 Days of CoDI: Day 21

On the twenty-first day of CoDI Mcara and McVie called to me… ‘Let’s all hug a thug’

Lesley McAra and Susan McVie: Hug a Thug

Let’s all hug a thug!CODI (25.08.15) Hug a thug (credit Lucy Gibbons) (3)

In July 2006, David Cameron gave his famous ‘hug a hoodie’ speech in which he claimed that this archetypal adolescent fashion accessory had become “a vivid symbol of what has gone wrong with young people in Britain today”.  So what does the hoodie really represent?  Lesley and Susan dig deeper into adolescent deviant sub-culture and explain why we should all ‘hug a thug’ instead.

Tell us a bit about yourselves?

Lesley is Professor of Penology (that sometimes gets a snigger) and Dean of Public Engagement. Meanwhile Susan is Professor of Quantitative Criminology (bit of a mouthful).  We are both passionate researchers with an interest in youth crime and juvenile justice. Together (amongst many other things) we co-direct the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime. The Study is longitudinal, made up of around 4000 young people based in Scotland’s capital city.

We approach our work from a developmental point of view – in other words, we are interested in how people change as they go through life – and we firmly believe that people’s futures are not pre-determined by their past.  Everyone has the capacity to change, even those who get a really bad start in life. As a result of researching the lives of many young people, we can identify things that can help offenders to get back on track and desist from crime. Hug A Thug Lesley

What does your research tell us about ‘thugs’?

We have used the term ‘thugs’ to be provocative in our show. What we really aim to do however, is to show that young people who get involved in offending (not all of which wear hoodies, by the way) have many different dimensions to their lives. They are not all the same.  Many people get involved in a little bit of offending as part of their ‘normal’ transition from childhood to adulthood. Go on – admit it – haven’t most of us done something that we were not proud of while we were growing up?

A smaller number of young people will get involved in a more serious and long term pattern of offending. That pattern can often lead to contact with the criminal justice system and, in some cases, lead to imprisonment.  These people find it harder to desist from offending, for a variety of reasons. For this reason, it is important that we use our research to find ways of both preventing them from offending and reducing their offending once they have started.

Are some people just born bad?

There is very little evidence that anybody is ‘born bad’, although there have been some studies that show some genetic influences on behavior.  The research in this area tends to suggest that someone with particular genetic markers will only be at increased risk of offending if they are brought up in a damaging environment; for example, they are exposed to poor parenting practices and they are not nurtured as well as they should be.

Most of the research evidence shows a wide variety of social and environmental factors, that impact on people’s behavior. By minimizing the negative influences and promoting the positive ones we can help to change people’s behavior for the better.  The reality is that most young people who get involved in more serious and persistent offending are also very vulnerable. They come from difficult and disadvantaged backgrounds.  There is a very high probability that they will have been victims of crime themselves. Often they are struggling to cope with life on a day to day basis.  They may lack the skills and support to tackle the problems that keep them in a cycle of offending behavior.

The difficulty is that there is no one ‘pathway’ that all people who offend follow. Tailored solutions are needed to meet individual needs.  But this can be expensive and difficult to target (especially because we don’t necessarily know who is going to be involved in the most offending).  The key is to identify ‘typical’ lifestyles and patterns of behavior. From there we must do our best to try and  support those in society who may be most ‘at risk’. Hug A Thug Susan

So what happens to young people who offend?

Evidence from the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime shows that young people who offend tend to just grow out of it naturally – they mature and go on to lead normal, law abiding lives.  In fact, most adolescent offences are very low level. So much so that they do not come to the attention of the criminal justice system.  Some (although not all) young people who get involved in more serious or persistent offending will come to the attention of the police. It is their decision as to whether the person needs to be dealt with formally or not.  They may be referred to the Children’s Reporter or they may be charged and taken to court.

A small proportion of young people end up in prison because of their offending behavior.  However, there is increasing emphasis on using alternatives to imprisonment.This is due to the recognition that prison can have a damaging effect on young people. Moreover it can often make them more likely to carry on committing crime.  Alternatives to imprisonment include things like community service, electronic tagging and diversion to drug treatment programmes.

Why should people come and see you in CoDI 2016?

Everybody is interested in crime!  And our show aims to take a light hearted approach to challenging commonly held perceptions about offending and offenders.  The title ‘hug a thug’ is intended to show that we believe a compassionate approach to dealing with young people who offend is likely to be more productive than punishing them.

Scotland is a very progressive country. Many of the changes to our criminal justice system in recent years have moved in a positive direction – especially the increased focus on using alternatives to imprisonment.  We will give our audience a flavor of what it’s like to go to prison (including sight and smell) and discuss the advantages of alternative disposals, such as electronic tagging.


Lesley and Susan’s show takes place on Friday 26th August, Stand in the Square (Venue 372), 3-4pm, £8 (£6)

Purchase tickets at:  http://www.outstandingtickets.com/show/119/performance/1556/book-tickets

Hug A Thug BarsHug A Thug