Reflections on the Scottish Youth Justice system

Jackie Anders, Student Engagement Manager with Melbourne’s Children Court, Australia, visited Scotland as part of her Churchill Fellowship travels. Here she discusses how the Australian youth justice system could benefit from Scotland’s community based approach.

In May and June (2016) I had the wonderful privilege of travelling to the US, Scotland and Denmark as part of a Churchill Fellowship. The purpose of my study trip was to learn about collaborative approaches between youth justice and education systems aimed at preventing and/or better responding to youth offending, with a view to identifying elements of these systems that could be effectively applied in Victoria, Australia.

My interest in studying effective practices in this area has developed through my work over the past eighteen months with the Education Justice Initiative (EJI), a collaborative effort between our Children’s Court and the Victorian Department of Education which places education consultants at the court to provide information, advice and advocacy on education issues for young people appearing in the court on criminal charges.

In many ways, Victoria’s youth justice system is an exemplar of effective youth justice policy and practice – we have the lowest numbers of young people under youth justice supervision of any state in Australia (14 per 10,000 compared to the national average of 21 per 10,000), there’s been a significant drop in the number of youth offenders (especially those aged 10-14) over the past decade or so, and the system employs several innovative approaches including group conferencing based on restorative justice principles, and the unique ‘dual track’ approach through which the adult court can sentence a young person aged 18-20 to a youth justice centre instead of adult prison, if they are seen to have reasonable prospects for rehabilitation – find out more.

For all these strengths, there are of course areas for improvement – one of these areas is education engagement among children entering or at risk of entering the youth justice system. Through our work in EJI, my colleagues and I have met hundreds of children coming through the court with common stories of school disengagement – they didn’t like or do well at school, were not attending regularly or at all, had been excluded (often many times) for behavioural issues, and in some cases were not enrolled in any school following multiple moves and family upheaval.

Working closely with families, schools and youth justice workers, we have been able to achieve ‘wins’ for individual young people such as preventing an exclusion, securing a new enrolment or advocating for a disability assessment. However, the prevalence of education issues – particularly histories of school exclusion – among young people who offend suggests that a more systemic, collaborative approach is needed.

I was drawn to exploring the Scottish approach to these issues – 15 years after first visiting Glasgow as an undergraduate exchange student – because I had read much about the Whole System Approach (WSA) to youth justice, and in particular the Early and Effective Intervention (EEI) process through which community-based, universal systems, including schools, social work and police work together to address the factors that drive youth offending.

Over the course of my ten days in Scotland, I had the opportunity to meet with researchers, educators, and social workers among others from a range of agencies. Some of the highlights of my visit included: observing a Children’s Hearing in Edinburgh; learning about EEI processes in the Glasgow local authority area; meeting with CYCJ and members of the Improving Life Chances implementation group; visiting school inclusion units run by Apex Scotland in Fife; and learning more about the research evidence underpinning the WSA from researchers with the Scottish Centre for Criminal Justice Research.

Through these discussions and observations I discovered that the principle of multi-agency collaboration is much more than rhetoric in Scottish Government policy documents; it is a core part of the youth justice system at all levels, from the EEI pre-referral screening processes occurring within local authorities, to the system-wide working groups leading the implementation of the national youth justice strategy. I was struck by the use of a ‘common language’ by people from range of agencies and professions (referencing GIRFEC, the SHANARRI indicators and the “named person” provision), and a strong sense of shared responsibility – among schools, social work, police, community services and youth justice practitioners – for the welfare needs of all children, including those who offend. This was captured in the comment of one educator who said: “I want us to rewind from just managing a child’s offending behaviour and think instead about what did our system do, or fail to do for that child.”

I believe there is much about the Scottish system that we could usefully adopt, or adapt, here in Victoria (and Australia more broadly), even without a wholesale change from our court-based system to a community-based hearing system akin to the Scottish “Kilbrandon” model. Three features of the Scottish system I was particularly impressed by were:

  • The national youth justice strategy, ‘Preventing Youth Offending – Getting it Right for Every Child’, which sets out the overarching approach and strategic priorities for the youth justice system; critically, the document has a preventative focus and include explicit strategies to address school exclusion as part of the national crime-prevention agenda.
  • The structured, solution-focused approach to diverting young offenders offered by EEI processes which embed responsibility for responding to youth crime in existing, community based universal systems (schools, health, social work etc).
  • The strong focus on continuous improvement in the youth justice system, evidenced by Government funding of the Centre for Youth & Criminal Justice, and the central role this organisation plays in connecting researchers, policy-makers and practitioners to drive research, practice improvement, and knowledge-sharing.

Since my return to Melbourne I’ve been drafting my fellowship report and have informally discussed my impressions from Scotland (and Denmark and the US) with colleagues in education, youth justice and the Children’s Court. I look forward to sharing my findings more widely in coming months once my fellowship report is complete.

My sincere thanks to CYCJ and the many other organisations and people who so generously shared their time and wisdom with me during my stay in Scotland. (And thanks also to the weather gods for ten days of perfectly warm, sunny Scottish weather!)

Read Jackie’s full report here.

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