Research Case Study

Why were the Victorians better at rehabilitating child offenders?

A new book containing the first ever-cradle-to-grave study of children in the early English juvenile justice system uncovers a time when youth incarceration seemed to work - and suggests why it can't in today's Britain.

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Consistent `aftercare’ and a job to walk into have been identified as key reasons why the Victorians may have done a better job of rehabilitating young offenders than we do.

A new book containing the first ever cradle-to-grave study of children’s experiences of the early English juvenile justice system in the late 19th and early 20th centuries finds that re-offending rates amongst young people in the past were much lower than they are today. 

Young Criminal Lives: Life Courses and Life Chances from 1850 which is co-authored by Professor Pamela Cox from our Department of Sociology, focuses on 400 children, all of whom were sent to a juvenile reform institution. The study uses personal letters, census data, crime records, newspapers and other official data to paint a picture of ‘what happened next’. It uncovers a time when youth incarceration seemed to ‘work’ – and suggests why it can’t in today’s Britain.  

Only 22% reoffended after release – and only 4% went on to commit more serious offences. Today, the reoffending rate for those who’ve been through our youth justice institutions is over 50%. The authors identify two main reasons why the Victorians and the Edwardians seemed to be more successful at curbing youth reoffending. 

Photo of Professor Pamela Cox
"’s hard to see how our current system can succeed in rehabilitating young people." 
Professor Pamela Cox  Department of sociology

Professor Cox explains: “Firstly, all of the young people studied walked straight out of the gates of their institution into paid employment. Secondly, the majority of those children were then assigned an after care officer who would build a relationship with them and monitor their progress. Sometimes, they kept in touch with each other for decades afterwards.

“So, not only were these young people able to reintegrate through work, many were able to earn enough money to pay their rent and to go on to support families of their own. In other words, most went on to lead pretty regular if modest lives. For the small percentage that did reoffend, we found that these economic and emotional networks were often missing.” 

Having identified why these historical institutions were ‘successful’ in terms of reducing re-offending, it’s easy to see why today’s are not. 

Professor Cox continues: “The staffing and management of our secure estate for children is in crisis. With no means to guarantee that ‘through the gate employment’ and a more fragmented support network, it’s hard to see how our current system can succeed in rehabilitating young people. We are sending fewer young people to custody today but we think there’s a case for a making a real break with the past and to re-think our whole approach – for example by exploring solutions that are more community or family-based or more therapeutic in nature.”     

Research team

  • Professor Barry Godfrey, University of Liverpool
  • Professor Pamela Cox, University of Essex
  • Dr Heather Shore, Leeds Beckett University
  • Zoe Alker, University of Liverpool