Turning the tide of change

The ‘Living it! Children, young people and justice’ Scottish Parliament event called for real change to happen in the youth justice sector. Charlotte Morris looks back on an evening with a difference…

In the youth and criminal justice sector, talk of change is constant. Where does it need to happen? How do we make it happen? Who is involved in making it happen?

The politicians, practitioners and policy makers all get together and generate ideas. Some of which work, some don’t. Policies come and go, and we tell ourselves the focus is always on the person that matters the most: the child or young person. Approaches such as GIRFEC (Getting it Right for Every Child), the Whole System Approach and SHANARRI indicators are all indicative of this ongoing commitment.

But how included are children and young people? Are we really taking into account what they want and need, or is this sometimes getting lost in the midst of committees, steering groups and paperwork?

That was the question behind the decision to publish a themed issue of Scottish Justice Matters, focusing on children, young people and justice. This issue included substantial contributions from young people – first-hand accounts of what it’s like to grow up in residential care, accept violence as a regular part of childhood or live with the fall out of having your relative imprisoned for a serious offence. Perspectives from research, practice and policy were also included, with contributions on cyberbullying, gaining employment with a criminal record and why too much intervention in a young person’s life can actually make criminal behaviour worse.

We wanted to go a step further. To celebrate the young people who contributed to this issue, and bring their voices and experiences directly to the most powerful building in the country – the Scottish Parliament. We wanted their opinions to matter, to be directly heard by those who are in the position to make the changes.

As a result, ‘Living it: Children, young people and justice’ took place at the Parliament on February 17. In addition to the ‘great and the good’ of the youth and criminal justice sector – ministers, MSPs, directors and chairs – there were also those who devote their careers to supporting young people in need – residential care workers, prison chaplains, support workers and social workers.

The undeniable stars of the show were the five brave young people who stood up in front of 100 plus guests to speak about their lives. All had different experiences to share, all moved everyone present – I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to feel a lump in the throat and in serious need of a Kleenex.

They weren’t sharing their stories for a sensationalistic effect, but making valid and realistic suggestions for bringing about change.

Kim, a young woman who is determined to move beyond an extremely troubled childhood and adolescence to give her son the opportunities she never had, got things off to powerful start. “It took me becoming a mother to feel love and that love sent me here today…if someone had reached out to me as a child, I would have had a better outcome.” She reminded guests that “we are here today to represent the forgotten kids – let’s work together to make this better”.

She was followed by Shaun, whose experience of residential care has made him ever more determined to change things for future generations. His point about how we focus on the external needs, but not so much on the internal needs, must surely have struck a chord with many across the room. “Most young people learn from the young people, they don’t have good role models – we need to take into account the experience of role models and mentors and listen to what they are saying.”

Amie’s account of what it was like for her family when her brother was imprisoned for attempted murder was deeply moving: “I was only 13, scared and confused…all I understood was that something had gone drastically wrong.” The lack of support she and her family received evokes the suffering of families affected by the justice system – suffering that is often ignored or overlooked, as other priorities, judgement and condemnation take over. “The current criminal justice system needs to be changed…what if we reach out to those suffering years of neglect before they go to prison?” She thanked the audience for being present: “Just by listening, you yourselves are breaking the stigma of criminality.”

Brian admitted that a childhood of “keeping things bottled up” and having no support led him to a lifestyle of alcohol and criminal activity. Now a young man in employment with a social enterprise, he admits that his self-esteem has rocketed since he started working. He called for more support for the organisations that helped him to turn things around – “not enough is done regarding funding and I want to see that change”. He concluded “today I’ve got hope, and if I never got the chances I did, I wouldn’t be here today”.

“We do not have a child friendly justice system and I am living proof of that,” final speaker Susie told the audience. At the age of 12, Susie was a witness to a crime , yet received only “disgusting and traumatic” treatment from the adults who were meant to be supporting her. She was left to contend with the fall out of the court case and the hugely detrimental impact this had on her subsequent years: “I was left to get on with my life, even though my life was falling apart. The only thing I managed to finish growing up was a prison sentence.” She stressed the importance of change for female inmates: “Women do not have the same opportunities as male inmates…we’re in a minority but have the majority of the issues.”

How do you follow such inspirational and courageous displays? A performance by arts-based project Vox Liminis kept the emotions flowing, with singer Iain Morrison sharing two beautifully poignant songs written by Scottish prisoners – calling for audience participation, naturally!

Concluding the evening was Professor Lesley McAra, Chair of Penology at the University of Edinburgh and co-director of the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime. Lesley’s thought-provoking presentation was based on her article in the SJM issue, which focused on a ‘Maximum Diversion, Minimum Intervention’ approach. This suggested that being caught can diminish rather than enhance the life chances of young people, and that we should be putting ‘needs before deeds’.

The response to the event and the young people was – unsurprisingly – overwhelmingly positive. Many took to Twitter to share their thoughts – you can view these on Storify.

Lessons were learnt on the evaluation forms:

‘The need for us to redouble our efforts to find ways to engage with young people who continue to be marginalised’

‘The importance of listening to young people and involving them as we try to improve things’

‘Flaws in Scotland’s and the UK’s justice system affect a huge amount of people by proxy’

There was also a lot of expert comment. Mark Bibbey, Chief Executive, of Venture Trust, put it succinctly: “None present could dispute the need for still further changes in attitude and practice within our criminal justice system; more widely, I sense the tide may be turning.”

However, the proof, as they say, is in the pudding (or perhaps the pancake mix, given the date). As Kim reminded us: ‘Use your knowledge and power because if we fail today, what chance do our kids have for tomorrow?’

Let’s hope that enough of us can make these changes become a reality, before more young people have to suffer unnecessarily.

‘Living it! Children, young people and justice’ took place at the Scottish Parliament on February 17th, 2015. It brought together Ministers, MSPS, practitioners and young people to address questions raised in the Scottish Justice Matters magazine issue of the same title. Find out more. 

About our blogger

As Knowledge Exchange Officer for CYCJ, Charlotte leads on capturing and sharing knowledge. Read more. 

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