Students Staff

15 April 2015

Victorian clues to improving re-offending rates in young people

Research has revealed how re-offending rates amongst young people could be improved by following the example of the Victorian reform system.

Professor Pamela Cox, of the University of Essex, told the British Sociological Association’s annual conference in Glasgow today how young offenders in late Victorian Britain were much less likely to go on to commit other crimes after serving a sentence than their counterparts today.

Professor Pamela Cox

Professor Pamela Cox speaking at the University of Essex

She explained: “In part at least it seems it is connected with the requirement that all those leaving the industrial and reformatory schools go into some kind of apprenticeship, or into the military. This set them up with a skill and gave them the routine of working that stood them in good stead in the future.”

The study has followed the lives of 500 children committed to reformatory or industrial schools over a century ago. It shows that only 22% re-offended during the rest of their lives after their release. This compares with today's figure of 73% of young people re-offending within a year after release from custody.

Professor Cox is working with Professor Barry Godfrey and Dr Zoe Alker, University of Liverpool, and Dr Heather Shore, Leeds Beckett University, on a three-year project to analyse the life courses of offenders aged 7-14 from across the UK who were sentenced to institutions in Merseyside and Cheshire between 1870 and 1910.

Recent digitisation of records made it possible for the first time to carry out a cradle-to-grave study tracing work history, marriages and other life events. It is the first historical analysis of re-offending rates for a large group of young people.

Typically the offenders were boys from poor backgrounds or broken homes who had committed minor offences such as petty theft, vagrancy or public disorder, and who were put into industrial and reformatory schools until 16. Upon release some went into apprenticeships such as hat or shoe making, railway work, or the military.

Professor Cox, from Essex's Department of Sociology, told the conference: "By the end of the 19th century, thousands of children had passed through a wide range of different homes.

"We still know very little about the practical workings or long-term impacts of the early English juvenile justice system but by using innovative digital methods we have reconstructed the lives, families and neighbourhoods of 500 young offenders.

"For the first time, we followed these children on their journey in and out of reform and though their adulthood and old age. To date, no-one has used historical evidence on this scale to assess the effectiveness of juvenile justice policy and practice.

"We found that the rate of re-offending among the young people coming out of these institutions in Victorian and Edwardian times was dramatically less than it is today.

"This wasn't because it was harder to catch offenders in those days - we know from other studies that the re-offending rate among adults released from prison during Victorian times was 80%, for example.”

As well as highlighting the use of apprenticeships and the military, Professor Cox explained that lower levels of re-offending were in part due to the fact that the boys’ crimes were typically less serious than those of young offenders today.

She said that the fact that despite their very similar backgrounds some did well and some re-offended also told the researchers that it was very difficult to predict precisely people's progress in life from their family backgrounds, as some criminologists believed today.

The project has been funded by the Leverhulme Trust.


More information

For further information please contact either the University of Essex Communications Office, telephone: 01206 873529 or email:, or Tony Trueman of the British Sociological Association, telephone: 07964 023392 or email:

...more news releases