Problem Solving Justice: are hugs the answer?

Stewart Simpson reports back from a Problem Solving Justice event, and asks if the American approach could work in Scotland.

The recent Problem Solving Justice event held at University of Strathclyde brought together those from different perspectives including local authority social work, academia, decision makers (Crown Office and SCRA) and many more to talk about alternatives to punitive measures and expecting people to comply with programmes or orders.

Former Glasgow Sheriff Brian Kearney chaired the event and reminded us of philosophies from the past, referring to the 1970s “nothing works” views and that actually, some things do work.

Sophie Kershaw, of Tavistock and Portman NHS trust, described the multi-agency approach in drug and alcohol courts in England, which aim to address the lengthy and often challenging (for children and parents) processes that often lead to permanency. Whilst the FDAC service aim is to protect children from substance misusing parents, those parents also need an opportunity to show they can “turn things around”.  How many opportunities do you give someone and when is a decision made that enough is enough?  FDAC answered this question in the context of processes in England and Wales with the collaboration of due process, compulsion (on parents) and intensive support to try and assist this process.

Some key points on the problem solving side were in relation to continuity of judges in this process allowing for something close to a therapeutic relationship between parent and decision maker. A further point was being able to consider issues such as housing, which may be part of the “problem” for some. Representatives from the local housing association may be asked to attend a person’s review, where housing was highlighted as an issue to try and contribute to a resolution.

SCRA’s Neil Hunter reminded us of the benefits of the Children Hearings System. He talked about some recent changes within the hearing system which made the process more formal. Whilst it is understandable that the Reporter must be seen to be impartial in proceedings, in my experience this offers up some barriers to young people’s engagement.

Previously you would find the Reporter sitting in the hearing room with the panel prior to the start of the hearing. Now, you often find the Reporter sitting in the waiting room with young people and their family, as a nod to impartiality. In my mind, this creates a new challenge in supporting young people through the hearing system process. A young person once whispered to me when he walked in for his first hearing “who’s the burd in the suit and why’s she hanging around in here with us? Clearly uncomfortable and not really knowing what would happen during the hearing, afterwards the young person told me he thought she might have been Police CID until she introduced herself as the Reporter and explained her role. This suggests the more formal the process, the more anxiety provoking it will be and the harder it is for a young person to really understand it.

Judge Russell Canan then described the American approach to problem solving justice. A large amount of work around offending and risk took place in the USA in the 80’s and 90’s on the back of Martinson 1974 ‘Nothing Works’ discussion which lead to the development of theories such as the risk need responsivity model (RNR) and Good Lives Model. The latter model is seen to be a ‘good fit’ as a problem solving approach, considering the person’s needs, and thinking about resources to help them meet these needs more appropriately. Russell described the approach in US Drug Courts has having three strands:

  • Coach
  • Criticise
  • Congratulate

The latter, he admitted, has involved hugging those who completed orders successfully. I suspect this would never catch on in Scottish Courts; however, the message here is that having a relationship with those in front of the bench is successful in engaging people. Reference is often made to RNR model as being unhelpful in attempting to motivate offenders. Likewise, I can see a “judging” approach or punitive approach being similar in its limitations.

Whilst so far the focus has been about drugs courts and the inputs at the event focussed on substance misuse and domestic violence in court processes, there was also discussion around young people and the Whole System approach. Thinking about feedback from young people and their experiences of court, on the formality of the process, the use of big words or just the lack of sense that can be made from mutterings between Sheriff, Defence and PF down the front, could a problem solving approach sit well with those between 16 and 18 who appear in our courts?

In a description of reviews in Glasgow’s drugs court being held in a round table discussion with the Sheriff, support agencies and without legal reps, the reports from two people involved  indicated that there was a chance for discussion. They felt heard, were clear that their needs were at the centre and knew what they needed to do. Too often young people leave court with a community pay back order or the warning “If I see you here again custody will be the likely outcome” ringing in their ears.  How does this contribute to addressing the needs behind their offending? If someone appears repeatedly in court there is clearly an unmet need, so do threats of custody really stick in young people’s minds when they are out in town on a Friday night? In many cases, the answer is no.

Instead, discussing the issues that lead to repeat court appearances and recognising progress however small may help. Coach the parts that are changing, criticise the parts that haven’t and congratulate the successes (the hugging bit is likely to be met with reservation on the part of both Sheriff and young person!)

Sheriff Mackie, whilst not at the conference, has also written on problem solving justice highlighting its merits in Alloa Sheriff Court. He describes this as an approach that can be implemented with relative ease and that he has done so in Alloa without there being any cost to the court in terms of increased time or finance.

Clearly the use of Problem Solving Justice has been useful to those involved in Glasgow’s Drugs Court and Sheriff Mackie has commented that he has seen this approach offer good outcomes in Alloa.

Personally, I would like to see a problem solving approach across Scotland on all occasions when dealing with offending by those under 18, with continuity of Sheriffs and of panel members where hearings take place, offering a degree of synergy between the two systems and their approaches to young people.

About our blogger

Previous to joining CYCJ, Stewart Simpson was a Youth Justice practitioner in the Scottish Borders. Read more.


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