Our wakeup call: A disappointing increase in offence referrals

We felt the need to write this blog following the publication of the Scottish Children’s Reporters Administration (SCRA) Annual Statistics, which show an increase in the number of offence referrals made for young people. Rather than use the old clichéd disclaimer about statistics, let’s say that statistics paint a picture, and it is for us to tell the story. While this is no horror story, the lives of young people are affected by our professional collective actions, so it’s no light hearted comedy either. Perhaps this blog should be read as a cautionary tale.

Trends in youth crime are, unfortunately, rarely due to the behaviour of young people. More often than not, apparent increases or decreases in youth offending are a result of changes in our systems, processes and approaches to these young people and their behaviour. This is because what we understand as acceptable and unacceptable behaviour changes over time, and in our knowledge gained through research and practice development we find our approach needs to be altered.

Unfortunately, for the second year in a row, SCRA have reported an increase in both the number of young people referred to the CHS on offence grounds (2.2%) and the number of offence referrals made for these young people (19.3%).

The rise is not consistent across Scotland; however, a small number of local authorities do account for a large percentage of the increase. This could suggest potential changes in local practices or spates of local incidents involving young people where the reaction has led to a referral to SCRA. However, a decrease or no change in offence referrals also does not mean local anomalies in practice are not afoot in the other areas.

A rise in offence referrals to the CHS is disappointing because we know that contact with formal systems such as this can have a negative impact on outcomes for young people, triggering a labelling and stigmatising response (McAra and McVie, 2007). Additionally, this increase comes after 8 years of the Whole System Approach and commitment to notions of prevention, early intervention and diversion through the creation of additional systems such as EEI and Diversion from Prosecution.

Here at CYCJ there have been collective concerns that the largely positive track record across the Scottish youth justice system may not be sustained, and this steep increase in offence referrals follows a number of years of incremental fluctuations, creating an overall increasing trend (23% increase from 14/15 to 17/18). The release of such disappointing referral trends to SCRA provides an opportunity to express these interconnected and anecdotal concerns initially, which can hopefully be followed up by evidenced and peer reviewed papers in due course. The story has to start somewhere.

Looking more closely at the data we can see that there has been a decrease in the number of children who are actually taken to a Children’s Hearing on new offence grounds, although there are some changes to the way these have been measured since last year. This is despite the overall increase in numbers of young people, suggesting that the requirement for compulsory measures has not been met. Reporter decisions not to proceed to a hearing, but to refer back to the Local Authority to proceed with existing measures, or be content with the families own action, were more frequent. There was also a decrease in the decision to divert to other measures, suggesting that voluntary, diversionary schemes such as Early and Effective Intervention and Diversion may not be being utilised to their full capacity. EEI is a multiagency decision making practice which aims to address low level offending and wellbeing concerns, and is arguably the first stage of entry into the youth justice system. Perhaps this increase is the fallout of creating additional layers of the system, which over a number of years has led to up- tariffing (although without a full review this is more hypothetical). For example, my own PhD research on EEI explores the potential for negative unintended consequences, such as net-widening and up-tariffing, to occur: “The machine might be getting softer but it’s not getting smaller” (Cohen, 1979, 350).

Parts of the WSA, specifically EEI and Diversion, appear to be in a state of flux as observed by CYCJ. The confusion around the introduction of the Named Person, the legal challenge on the basis of information sharing and the introduction of GDPR have rightly scrutinised information sharing processes and protocols, however uncertainty has put additional strain on the multiagency functioning of these systems. Additionally, there has been a lack of focus and reduction of specific youth justice services and the supports, specialist knowledge and practice that these bring (Nolan, 2015). With decreasing budgets, the shift to meaningful prevention and early intervention has not been adequately resourced and its potential fully realised (Lightowler, 2017).

The worry is that these statistics could be used to create a different story by the media, politicians and others in places of influence to create a eulogy for prevention: that we have been taking the wrong approach entirely or that the preventative agenda is not working. However, the dramatic increase tends to indicate a change in practice rather than a behavioural change, and therefore we may be in need of a critical friend. We have an opportunity to either review our current practices and to scrutinise how we are working currently; or continue to pat ourselves on the back for our ‘holistic’, ‘child centred’, ‘proportionate, effective and timely’ support to young people while some, and potentially the most vulnerable and marginalised, may be inadequately supported through inappropriate systems. While we cannot say definitively that the increase has resulted from any one factor, the increase provides an opportunity to review the culture and conditions, and their underpinning principles, and this may be where we need to revitalise and re-energise our endeavours.


Cohen, S (1979). The Punitive City: Notes on the Dispersal of Social Control. Contemporary Crises, Vol. 3. pp. 339-363.

Lightowler, C (2017). The rhetoric of preventing offending: What we say, what we do and how can we do better. Sacro Annual Lecture, 2017. Edinburgh. Retrieved from http://www.sacro.org.uk/sites/default/files/media/sacro_lecture_2017.pdf

McAra, L. and McVie, S. (2007). Youth Justice? The Impact of System Contact on Patterns of Desistance from Offending. European Journal of Criminology. Vol. 4(3), pp. 315-345.

Nolan, D (2015) Youth Justice: A Study of Local Authority Practice across Scotland. Centre for Youth and Criminal Justice.

About our blogger: Fern Gillon is the Research Assistant at the Centre for Youth & Criminal Justice. Fern’s research interest is in the Scottish youth justice system, its processes and interventions; and young people’s experiences of them.

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