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  1. Politics
17 April 2000

Young offenders deserve a hearing

New Statesman Scotland - Prison is a training ground for a career in crime. If we want to

By Claire Walker

It is an oft-repeated criticism of the Scots that we claim too many brilliant inventions and ideas as our own. Well, in one respect, there is no doubt that Scotland leads the world: we have the Children’s Hearing System. It keeps youngsters out of the courts, the philosophy being that the commission of an offence by a child should be met with a caring response, in the same way that the neglect of a child does. It deals with all children under 16 identified as being in need – whether an offence has been committed or not. The hearing comprises three lay people – the Children’s Panel – who have an interest in, or knowledge of, children’s needs. They are recruited locally and are not paid.

The approach is child-centred, and hearings are conducted in private, to enable the child to participate in discussions. The panel hears the child’s story and receives reports from the child’s social worker and the parent(s) if appropriate, then decides what – if any – form of protection, guidance, treatment or control is appropriate. Some estimate that 99 per cent of children who go through the hearing system are kept out of the criminal justice system.

Now an influential think-tank has produced a report calling for the hearing system to be extended to those aged 16-18. Set up by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) and the charity NCH Action for Children, the think-tank brought together people from leading children’s organisations in Scotland.

They want the Scottish Executive to end “punishment without purpose” and to invest in services that tackle the causes of offending rather than continuing to concentrate on punishing its consequences. Despite the work of the Children’s Panels, Scotland has one of the highest rates of imprisonment of young people in Europe. In 1998 alone, 1,613 young people were jailed for defaulting on fines. It costs more than £500 a week to keep someone in prison, compared with less than £100 for proven alternatives, such as intensive probation, that address the reasons for criminal behaviour. Furthermore, an evaluation of NCH Action for Children’s Inverclyde intensive probation project, carried out by Stirling University, showed that rates of reoffending in these projects were down by between 60 to 70 per cent.

Prison is a great training ground for a career in crime. As David Henderson, the head of policy development at COSLA, puts it: “COSLA has consistently supported a reduction in the use of prison for those under 18 and a shift in resources towards work with offenders in the community. For those aged 16 and 17, prison can harden and entrench criminal tendencies, and that benefits neither the young people involved, nor their communities.” The proposals are not, however, targeted at serious criminals. According to Joe Connolly of NCH Action for Children: “Imprisonment has to remain an option for serious offenders who pose a danger to others, but the reality in Scotland is that we jail far too many young people who have committed relatively minor offences, most of them related to dishonesty.” So the idea is for those aged 16-18 to go through the hearing system and that intensive probation be at universal disposal. At present, these apparently more effective and cheaper schemes are not available in many areas, leaving sheriffs with no option but to send young people to prison.

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Intensive probation schemes use a variety of imaginative methods to encourage their young attendees to examine and take responsibility for their actions. This includes role-playing, where the convicted youths are asked to imagine being the victims of the type of crimes they have perpetrated. The attitudes that underpin offending behaviour are challenged, alongside the teaching of skills to avoid confrontation. The young offenders are provided with help for drug and alcohol problems and, crucially, given an insight into the long- and short-term consequences that offending behaviour has on the offenders themselves, their families, their victims and the wider community. Kevin McLaren, who himself has been through intensive probation, explains: “I tend to lash out first and ask questions later . . . we done a few role plays [about] what you do. If I’d never done anything like that, I’d still be punching bodies right, left and centre.” Chris Mailley says the scheme has helped him, too: “It helped me to realise that I should be thinking more about changing my ways instead of jumping into the deep end all the time, as it doesn’t get me anywhere, except in jail.”

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Lesley Carter told me about her contact with an NCH Action for Children’s Intensive Probation Unit (IPU). “In January 1995, I appeared at Greenock Sheriff Court and was convinced I was going to prison. The reality was that I would have done if the Intensive Probation Unit hadn’t been in existence.

“I was a single parent with two children. For different reasons, I had shoplifted for many years. At first, it was to finance my addiction to speed; then, when I was pregnant and stopped using drugs, I shoplifted because I was entitled only to severe hardship allowance and I wanted to be able to provide for the baby. Then I experienced three horrible years of suffering post-natal depression. During this time, I had regular appearances in court. I was sentenced to fines, followed by probation and community service. I got caught shoplifting again, breached my probation and got more community service. Then, just after having Julie [second child], suffering from post-natal depression, I shoplifted again, just five days before my probation was due to finish. So there was no question – I was looking to go to prison.

“After that time, I have to admit . . . I was suicidal. I knew that I had let my parents down, my boyfriend – and most of all my kids. How would they feel having a mother in prison? I was ashamed that all these chances had made no difference to me whatsoever. Although I had quite enjoyed my stint in the joinery workshop (twice) in community service, it did nothing to stop me offending.

“So there I was, due back in court and sure I was going to prison. I was also appalled that I was probably going to be in the local newspaper again. Although I know that for some young people being in the newspaper was a bit of a laugh, for me it was a source of shame and embarrassment – more so, maybe, for my mum and dad.

“When I came out of court having been put on intensive probation, I couldn’t work out how the IPU would help me when everything else had failed. But I quickly realised how much it had to offer. I benefited from sitting in a group with other women who had been to court, and I was able to speak openly and honestly. We were talking about what was important to me . . . I felt I was going from strength to strength and I looked forward to every group – I felt they weren’t coming quickly enough. I felt my confidence coming back and began to feel that I had a lot to offer other people.”

Lesley eventually progressed to the stage where she was employed by the IPU, on a sessional basis, to run groups for young people coming on to the project. She wanted to give back something of what she had learnt. Now, she has a brand new career in retail management. Lesley concludes: “All the time I was involved with the unit, I did not reoffend – I wouldn’t dream of it now. Too many people (including myself) have got too much to lose by me doing something stupid. I know that, because of the growing heroin problem in Inverclyde, there will be more young women involved in the IPU and – for their sake – I hope it continues.”

The think-tank report has been submitted to the Scottish Executive as part of its review of youth crime. No doubt the hang ’em and flog ’em brigade (you know who you are) will start bleating about soft options, the punishment fitting the crime, young people of today, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. But, as Alan Miller, the principal reporter of the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration and chair of the think-tank, says: “We can reduce youth crime and improve community safety by addressing the needs and deeds of young people. We already have good examples of how this can be done, and the key is to support good practice and use resources wisely and to good effect.” Miller adds: “It is time to move beyond the debate about being too soft or tough on offending and to be effective – the think-tank’s recommendations do this.” The results speak for themselves.

It is time to extend Scotland’s unique Children’s Hearing System and to find responses more imaginative and humane than throwing our kids into jail.

The names of offenders have been changed