When young William Lindsay, just 16, ended his life in Polmont YOI, the story of his troubled childhood came to light in a fine article by Dani Gavarelli. She detailed how he had bounced around the care system coming from a family where addiction and other problems had made it impossible for him to be in his own home until recently. In a report published this morning, and compiled by Richard Holloway, Kaliani Lyle and myself, it's made clear that young William is not an isolated case, and that he was failed by the system.
Self evidently, given his history and his age he should have found a place in secure accommodation as a risk to himself and potentially to others. But half of the secure places in Scotland are constantly used to house young people from England and Wales where there is a shortage of provision. Those Scottishh units who take them in do so because they need to fill beds to stay solvent. Polmont, in constrast, is funded by central government. Essentially William was failed by market forces.
Listening to young people in custody or with experience of it, to youngsters who had been in care temporary and otherwise, and then having access to a raft of research material, gave us some insights into what works, what doesn't and where the shortfalls lie. Most importantly of all it demonstrated just how similar were the back stories of these young people, and how perpetrators of crimes were often themselves victims of offending behaviour.
Their communalities were as predictable as they were depressing. The young men we met in Polmont all had experience of dysfunctional families, impoverished communites, and exposure to criminality amd often violence. Without exception they had been excluded from school usually from their primaries on. For most of them, their gran represented their only stable family relationship. In a group they demonstrated boyish bravado. In private they were scared and insecure. They knew that if they returned to the same area and the same life on release, they would be back in custody sooner rather than later.
Action for Children, who commissioned this report along with the Children's Commissioner, try to mitigate this by providing as many mentors as they can for young men being released. Giving them support and a route to employment.
It was clear too that vulnerable young people had lacked someone and somewhere in their troubled lives where they could articulate their fears and problems to a trusted adult without fear of reprisal and in total confidence. Someone who might have been able to save them from at least some of the negative consequences they all had experienced. One of the startling facts to come to light is that more young people in Scotland have to deal with a parent being imprisoned than parental divorce.
But there are wider problems we need to acknowledge and address. The impact on families of poverty and lack of opportunity. The false dichotomy between helping communities and victims and dealing with offenders. The latter are overwhelmingly from the same communities, and more often than not, have themselves been the victim of offending behaviour. We learned from Northern Ireland and elsewhere that having properly run restorative justice and family conferencing can help bring a degree of fairness to victims and a sense of responsibility to the offender. And, as crucially, decrease repeat offending.
Other young people on the outside talked of myriad famly problems resulting in their being put in different kinds of care, sometimes with very poor results. Children who grow up in care homes for instance are over represented in all the wrong kinds of statistics; more are homeless, more are subject to addictions, more lack employment opportunities. more get into trouble. In the report we also argue that having criminal records acquired as teenager hung around the necks of young adults for 20 years makes it even more difficult for them to turn their lives around and find good jobs.
It's iniquitous that the age of criminal consent in Scotland for so long has been pegged at 8. The Scottish Government is engaged on raising this to 12 which is welcome. But we argue for 16, and also for a youth justice system for 16 to 18 year olds which keeps them away from adult courts and, where possible, from custodial sentences.
We looked too at how the Children's Hearings system was working. The original concept was to deal with young offenders without having them sucked prematurely into formal court procedures. Yet now the overwhelming referrals are on care and protection grounds rather than offending. There are problems too with not recording and archiving information which would inform future hearings. It would also be invaluable to have information about longer term outcomes. Plus we still haven't cracked the conundrum of panel members not coming from diverse enough backgrounds; not being representative of the communities most often appearing before them.
The picture is not all gloomy. There has been a consistent fall in youth crime rates, and in the number of young offenders referred to hearings. The Poverty Commission is delving deeper into the corrosive impact of serial austerity on communities. The ongoing Care Commission will give us a much fuller picture of what is happening to Scotland's looked after children and how we can improve their life chances. Establishments like Kibble have developed some cutting edge programmes for dealing with trauma damaged children.
We witnessed huge levels of commitment to young people in many places, as well as disturbing instances of unmet needs. But nothing, including the process of administering youth justice, can be preserved in aspic regardless of societal changes. This third post Kilbrandon report makes that clear.