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Scottish justice: Keeping under-18s out of prison is a good idea...

...but legislation alone is not the answer

This is the topic in my latest Scotsman newspaper column, published 14th March 2022.

There was no surprise when the prison inspector once again highlighted the futility of putting young people behind bars.

It’s been a familiar refrain over the years, and for good reason. The evidence is clear. We know putting young folk in prison is the worst possible investment.

Usually serving short sentences, there is no time for rehabilitation, only for familiarisation with the prison system and the chance to make a lot of bad contacts. The proof of this failure is plain to see as the same faces return time and again.

Now prison inspector Wendy Sinclair-Gieben is trying to tackle the problem by making it illegal to jail anyone under 18. Citing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, she points out children must not be deprived of their liberty unless they pose a serious risk of harm.

It’s a powerful argument well made, but before we get misty-eyed about teenagers being slammed up, let’s look at the crimes they commit.

A good percentage of housebreakings and vehicle thefts are committed by teenagers. It is easy to dismiss these as petty crimes until you are the victim. There are few more serious and personal crimes than housebreaking. Having met more than my share of victims, I can assure you the age of the culprit does nothing to alleviate the hurt and anger at the invasion of privacy. Active teenage criminals can cause their own mini-crimewave before the system catches up.

Ms Sinclair-Gieben is right to point out the futility of prison for young people but, as she admits, there need to be viable alternatives, in the shape of more secure care establishments.

And here we come against an old obstacle. It is almost 60 years since the Kilbrandon Committee produced their report on how society should deal with children in trouble. It was a transformational moment in Scotland’s juvenile justice system, introducing children’s panels and the office of reporter, it sought to remove under 16s from the criminal justice system and avoid the stigma of criminal courts.

Described as a work of genius, the new approach and its cornerstone children’s panels of lay people have served us well, diverting thousands of young folk away from a life of crime.

But for all its strengths, over the years, many children’s panels have been frustrated by the lack of options for the disposal of cases, particularly the lack of secure care places.

It’s all part of the vicious circle of funding that has plagued the system for years. Because we incarcerate so many people in Scotland, we need to continuously invest in our prison estate. The more we do that, the less we can invest in meaningful alternatives, including community sentences and secure places of care.

There are few votes in being seen to be soft on crime. Regardless of the evidence to the contrary, prison is still seen by many as the only real punishment.

The prison inspector deserves our support but given that we do not have a bottomless pit, it is difficult to see how legislation alone can provide an answer without the political courage to divert resources away from prisons and towards secure places of care.

But only then will the genius of Kilbrandon’s work be fulfilled.

You can also read my article here.

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