Changes to children's justice system would help break the cycle of offending
13 June 2023
A Bill which would see most 16 and 17 year olds in Scotland referred to the Children’s Hearing System, rather than the adult justice system, could help address underlying issues and stop young people from reoffending.
This is one of the findings from a report by Holyrood’s Education, Children and Young People Committee on the Children (Care and Justice) (Scotland) Bill.
Stakeholders told the Committee they were broadly in favour of the changes the Bill would introduce, which include raising the age at which a young person can be referred to the Children’s Hearing System to 18.
This change would lead to more young people being referred to the Children’s Hearing System. To account for this, the Committee is urging the Scottish Government to work with Children’s Hearings Scotland to set clear targets and timescales to recruit and train more of the panel members who make legal decisions with and for children and young people.
The Committee also expressed concern that the Bill effectively establishes the age of 17-and-a-half as the cut-off date for referrals to the Children’s Hearing System. The Committee believes that this is not in the spirit of the Bill and needs to be addressed.
The Bill will still allow for a young person’s offending to be handled by the adult justice system for the most serious crimes and where it is assessed to be in the public interest to prosecute. The Committee supported this, but has called on the Scottish Government to ensure safeguards and measures are put in place to help young people better understand and participate in proceedings, whether they are attending a Children’s Hearing or a court.
Furthermore, the Committee has insisted that updated and full costings are provided ahead of the Stage 1 vote. Social work teams in local authorities will play a key role in delivering the reforms in the Bill. However, the Committee repeatedly heard about the financial pressures that local authorities face, and the Bill does not have enough information about how the additional work they will need to do will be funded.
Sue Webber MSP, Convener of the Education, Children and Young People Committee, said:
“We welcome the changes in this Bill that will ensure that 16 and 17 year olds would have access to the Children’s Hearing System.
“As we heard time and again, where a child has committed an offence it’s important to consider why this has happened and we believe, if properly resourced, this Bill will help. It will protect children from harm and help find solutions to the problems that may have led to them offending in the first place. But improvements are needed before the Bill becomes law.
“We are alarmed that referral to the Children’s Hearing System seems to have an effective cut-off at 17.5 years old. This cut-off seems to be based on the length of time it might take for a case to be processed. We want the Scottish Government to address the delays the system appears to face and ensure that support is provided up to 18 years old, as was intended.”
Another change the Bill introduces would ensure that under-18s are sent to a secure accommodation provider, instead of a Young Offenders Institution, or prison. There was strong support from witnesses, including Gerry Michie, Governor of YOI Polmont, and Sue Brookes of the Scottish Prisons Service, who told the Committee that: “16 and 17-year-olds, as children, should not be with us. Even if the rest of the establishment was empty, those children should be somewhere else.”
However, the Committee also heard about concerns with the financial sustainability of secure care providers. Given how vital secure care is to the delivery of the reforms within the Bill, the Committee has called on the Scottish Government to urgently investigate how the changes will affect their finances ahead of the Government’s planned release of a report on secure care in 2024.
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