Youth justice sector divided after Scotland axes its fast-track young offender scheme

The announcement last week by Scotland’s justice minister,
Cathy Jamieson, that the executive was to scrap its controversial
fast-track scheme for young offenders following disappointing
research findings has shocked the sector, writes Derren

A manager at one of the six pilot sites said people were
“falling off their seats” when they heard the news.

Jamieson based her decision on an independent evaluation of the
scheme that showed areas not fast-tracking were more successful
than the six pilot sites at cutting reoffending by persistent young

On average, the pilots cut reoffending by 32 per cent, but
non-pilot areas of similar size reduced it by 55 per cent. And,
crucially, analysis of the costs of running services compared to
the savings created from reduced reoffending showed fast-tracking
cost £4,000 a case while non-pilot sites produced savings of
£11,000 a case.

Under the system, young people who commit five offences are
referred to children’s hearings and their cases prioritised
so they quickly get services to address their behaviour. Around 300
children have been fast-tracked since the pilots were set up in
February 2003 in Dundee, East Lothian, East Ayrshire, North
Ayrshire, South Ayrshire and Scottish Borders, and fast-tracking
was expected to play a key role in reforms to the hearings

But following the disappointing findings, Jamieson announced
pilots would finish in September as originally planned and the
extra £4.5m earmarked for them to run for another year would
be redistributed to all 32 of Scotland’s local

She told pilots: “I realise this will be a disappointing
outcome for you, but am sure you will understand that the
evaluation results, which we have explored at some length, do not
offer the evidence I need to recommend continuation or

Her decision has provoked contrasting reactions from different
sections of the criminal justice social work community.

Long-term critics of the scheme, such as charity Children 1st
and the British Association of Social Workers Scotland, are pleased
to see the back of it. They have argued that fast-tracking rushes
the assessment process and creates an incentive for reporters to
refer children into the hearings system too quickly so they can get
access to services.

Ruth Stark, professional officer for BASW Scotland, says this
has resulted in some children being referred to the hearings system
for a number of minor offences.

“Some teams have got more specialist and less staff have
been able to make a judgment about whether to keep a child out of
the system,” she says. “You need time and all the
information to do that. It is a factor because next time they are
referred into the hearings system they come in higher up the tariff
and can get targeted into secure accommodation quicker.”

But these criticisms are not shared by those involved in the
pilots. They say the information is still robust – it is just
the information-gathering and decision-making processes that are

Paul Carberry, assistant director of NCH Scotland, which
provided services to two of the pilots, remains convinced that the
fast-track model is “a better approach”.

“The quicker you intervene the better chance you have of
stopping reoffending,” he says. “It’s been
perceived externally as a more efficient and effective way of
engaging young people in tackling offending and [children’s]
panel members in other areas have said they wished they had the

And Carberry refutes Stark’s assertions that fast-tracking
encourages reporters to “up-tariff” children to get
them access to services. “They were persistent offenders and
many were already known to agencies,” he claims.

But Carberry admits he was shocked by the research findings. He,
along with the Association of Directors of Social Work, believes
the decision to discontinue the scheme is hasty and he would have
liked greater analysis of the data.

“I’m not convinced they were comparing like with
like,” he says. “In the fast-track sites reoffending
was robustly reported by the police and the definition of
reoffending was absolutely clear. I’m not sure it was so in
other areas.”

Andrew Lowe, director of social work at one of the pilot
councils, Scottish Borders, says fast-tracking should have been
given more time to prove its worth. “We’re sorry the
funding has ceased without a longer test period to demonstrate the
potential benefits,” he adds.

It seems likely the fall-out from the minister’s decision
will be most keenly felt in the six pilot sites. Bernadette
Doherty, ADSW children and families committee chair, predicts a
reduction in service levels “for some of the most troubled

Carberry admits some “hard” decisions will have to
be made.  “Resources will go and there could be a reduction
in services,” he says. “We’ll have to look at the
implications of that and make decision around support programmes
for children.”

Although he says the findings have “undermined”
fast-tracking, he hopes the pilots have left a lasting legacy of
how different agencies can work together more quickly.

But Stark is less charitable. “I think the knowledge was
already there about what parts of the system could be
speeded-up,” she says. “The executive made the u-turn
for a reason and I hope it takes it into account when looking at
the long-term future of the children’s hearing

Fast-track evaluation from


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