Scotland sees its first experiment with a youth court

On the face of it the launch of Scotland’s first youth
court this week might be seen as an another example of the
country’s progressive approach to tackling youth offending,
writes Sally Gillen.

The 16 and 17-year-old persistent offenders it will deal with
currently go before an adult court, a system many view as
inappropriate and are keen to see scrapped.

One of those who has welcomed the new idea is Susan Devlin,
manager of children and families and justice services at North
Lanarkshire council, who says a youth court will be more
“receptive” than the adult one most 16 and 17-year-olds
find themselves in.

Funded with £6 million from the Scottish executive, the
youth court, will be piloted for two years in Hamilton, an area
served by North and South Lanarkshire councils.

It will be multi-agency based, involving police, social
services, the court service, legal aid and the prosecution service,
and the councils will share £1.4 million to devise new
programmes, including ones focusing on community-based work and
restorative justice.

“We hope that the programmes we develop will have an
impact on the number of young people that end up with custodial
sentences because we will be able to show the court that the young
person will be engaged in something.”

Devlin also believes that the creation of remand foster bail,
introduced as a result of the youth court money, may keep young
people out of a young offenders’ institution because it will
allow the them to show that while on remand they have kept out of

Critics and supporters of the scheme agree that its biggest
advantage is the ability to fast track the procedure, which will
mean that the young person will appear in court a maximum of 10
days after they have committed a crime.

Now the majority of young offenders wait on average eight months
for a court date, during which time the impact of their crime, and
their remorse, lessens, says Devlin.

With this system, professionals will be able to intervene more
quickly, which will increase their ability to show young offenders
the cost of their crime.

But is the youth court the “innovative and
effective” answer to youth crime described by minister for
justice Cathy Jamieson at its launch? After all it was not so long
ago that the abolition of any sort of court procedure for 16 and
17-year-olds looked certain.

In June 2000 a review of youth crime was undertaken by a group
of experts, which included social care professionals, and was
submitted to the Scottish executive. Its main recommendation was
that the children’s hearing system, which is made up of lay
people, the young person’s parent or carer, a social worker
and a recorder from the Scottish Children’s Reporter
Administration, should be extended to 16 and 17-year-olds.

But Douglas Hamilton, research and policy officer at
Barnardo’s Scotland, says: “For the last two years we
have been waiting for pilots extending children’s hearings
for 16 and 17-year-olds, which is something that was supported by
everyone, social services and voluntary organisations etc. The
executive was supposed to be legislating for that, but it was
dropped at the last minute. Ok, pilot youth courts but make sure
you try extending children’s hearings as well.”

He adds that there is a “big fear” that there will
be an increase in the number of custodial sentences once the youth
court is established because it is not as “informal and
child-friendly” as a children’s hearing, which also
takes an approach that attempts to get a “whole
picture” of the young person in order to explain their
actions and look for solutions.

The disappearance of a pilot for extending the hearings from the
Criminal Justice Bill is easily explained, according to Hamilton.
“What it comes down to is politicians. During the last
elections they were all were campaigning on the basis of who was
going to be hardest on youth crime and the public think that a
court sounds harsher than a children’s hearing. But what we
are asking is whether it is most effective,” he says.

Certainly the language ministers have chosen to use in relation
to youth crime has taken on a punitive tone in recent months.
Announcing the establishment of a working group to examine the
feasibility of a youth court last August, first minister Jack
McConnell talked about youth crime affecting “too many
Scots”, and a commitment to “improving the quality of
life for our communities”.

On another occasion he “promised tough and effective
action against the small number of young people who repeatedly
reoffend” – harsh rhetoric designed to appeal to voters.

Worryingly, it seems that Scotland is turning to more punitive
measures to deal with youth crime overall. The Anti-Social
Behaviour (Scotland) Bill replicates much of the work done in
England, which has been attacked by children’s charities,
such as tagging anti-social behavior orders for under 16s and
parenting orders.

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