Pilot scheme to keep young out of prison

Hundreds of young offenders are to avoid prison and secure accommodation as part of a Scottish Government-funded pilot scheme aimed at tackling the causes of their behaviour.

The £1.2 million scheme, which areas in the Central Belt are already looking to emulate, plans to reduce re-offending rates by offering young people intensive support rather than taking them to court or children’s hearings.

The “whole system approach”, which means police, prosecutors and support services work together to offer young people help rather than punishment, is being piloted in Aberdeen, but other police forces and local authorities have indicated they would be keen to run a similar pilot.

Young offenders up to the age of 18 will be screened by a multi-agency group within a week of breaking the law and referred directly to a support service.

Rather than being reported to the procurators fiscal and courts, they are more likely to be asked to apologise as part of a restorative warning or given an immed­iate community alternative.

As part of the pilot they may be given intensive support from a whole range of agencies, including social work and charities such as Sacro and Barnardo’s.

Officials say those committing very serious or violent offences should go through the hearings or courts faster as a result.

As an indication of the numbers that could be involved in the pilot, there were 464 children in the area referred to the reporter on offence grounds in 2008/09.

Fred McBride, director of social work at Aberdeen City Council, said: “This is about getting kids into services as quickly as possible rather than getting them into processes. Rather than referring them to the fiscal or children’s hearings, it is about getting them straight into services and out of a bureaucratic system.

“We found that with the younger children in particular, the gap between an offence and getting to a hearing is such that they may have forgotten why they are there. We need to deal with the issue when it is fresh in their mind. It is about being more responsive, quicker and proportionate.

“If it goes as far as court we may have someone in court to say these are the alternatives to custody that we are running and think would be applicable.

“We believe a number of young people are being sent into secure care or custody who would benefit from alternatives. This is a multi-agency approach, with education, health, the police, procurators-fiscal and voluntary organisations.”

The pilot is part of the Scottish Government drive to reduce reoffending. Figures indicate that young people sent to prison are the most likely to reoffend on release. Ministers have pledged to reduce reoffending.

Grampian was identified for the pilot partly because of enthusiasm from the police for a new approach to reduce reoffending.

Inspector Lyn Ross, the programme manager, said it is expected to start in May. “It is about intervening much earlier and identifying their needs,” she said. “It will start in Aberdeen but we would like to roll it out to Aberdeenshire. We will have a screening meeting on a weekly basis so any young person who has offended can be connected with the appropriate services within a week.

“Traditionally cases would be referred to the fiscal or reporter who would then ask for reports from social work, education and health and that could take weeks, but with this programme all those agencies would be at that screening meeting ready to discuss the young person’s needs and the appropriate diversions.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Many young people could and should be diverted from statutory measures, prosecution and custody through early intervention and robust community alternatives and the focus of this work will be to engage proactively to support young people to develop the skills which will allow them to make a positive contribution to their communities, primarily through education and skills.

“We believe that the whole system approach has the potential to do just that through the development of interventions and responses.”