Understanding childhood adversity, resilience and crime

Summary of evidence on links between childhood adversity and criminality in adulthood.

1 What have ACEs got to do with Justice?

Everything. This paper sets out a summary of the evidence on the links between childhood adversity and victimisation and criminality in adulthood. It makes a strong case for preventing crime by targeting those most at risk of experiencing adverse childhoods, and supporting people in the Justice System whose lives have been affected by adverse childhood experiences ( ACEs) in order to reduce reoffending and prevent intergenerational crime and victimisation. It argues that this will require a coordinated and collaborative effort across government.

Most of the recognised ACEs (and other adversities) impact on the Justice System.

Children and adults with experience of ACEs may come into contact with the criminal justice system - both as victims or witnesses and perpetrators of crime. They may also interact with the civil justice ‘family law’ system.

The justice system therefore has a key role in preventing and, in particular, mitigating the impact of ACEs.

Preventing ACEs could provide a significant opportunity to reduce crime in Scotland. Some studies have estimated that preventing ACEs could halve violence perpetration and incarceration. (Bellis et al., 2014)

Research consistently shows a strong association between ACEs and crime. People who experience multiple ACEs are more likely to engage in risk taking behaviours which are harmful to health and – significantly for Justice – sometimes associated with criminal behaviour. The Welsh ACEs Study (Public Health Wales NHS Trust, 2015) reported that compared with people with no ACEs, those with 4+ ACEs were:


times more likely to be a victim of violence in the last 12 months


times more likely to be a perpetrator of violence in the last 12 months


times more likely to have been incarcerated in their lives

How can a harsh childhood lead to criminal behaviour?

  • ACEs theory is consistent with theories of crime which have proven links between childhood factors and adulthood criminality and victimisation (e.g. Agnew, 1985; Farrington et al, 2006)
  • Prolonged exposure to stress in childhood disrupts healthy brain development. This can manifest as emotional and conduct problems in childhood, and risk-taking and criminal behaviours in adulthood. (Levenson et al, 2016)
  • The more ACEs someone experiences the more detrimental the effect on their well-being (known as a ‘graded dose-response’). (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2015)
  • ACEs have been linked to many ‘criminogenic’ risks (factors that increase risk of offending) including substance and alcohol abuse, deprivation, poor educational attainment, and mental health problems. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2015)

10 most commonly measured Adverse Childhood Experiences ( ACEs)


  • Physical
  • Verbal
  • Sexual


  • Physical
  • Emotional

Household Adversities

  • Mental Illness
  • Incarcerated relative
  • Domestic violence
  • Parental Separation
  • Substance abuse

Points for Reflection

The evidence does not prove causality. Not all children who experience multiple ACEs become victims or perpetrators of violence in adulthood, but they are statistically more likely to than people with no ACEs.

What is predictable is also preventable.
(Dr R. Anda)


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