SCLC Youth Justice event & reflecting on the WSA (Whole Systems Approach)

In this blog post, CYCJ’s Stewart Simpson reports back from the Scottish Child Law Centre’s Youth Justice conference and reflects on the WSA – Whole Systems Approach, or more holes than Swiss cheese?

Debbie Nolan and I attended the Scottish Child Law Centre Youth Justice event on 11th September on behalf of CYCJ. Co-chaired by Dame Elish Angelioni and Sheriff Alistair Duff, Director of the Judicial Institute, this was an opportunity to reflect on the impact of WSA to date and explore some of the practice challenges – or as Bill Whyte described it, looking at the “holes” in the Whole System Approach.  Speakers included Michelle Burman, Glasgow University, SCRA, Crown Office and Police Scotland. A welcome addition to the event was that young people, yes actual young people, were present! Two groups of upper High School young people heard about the work that is ongoing to address offending behaviour and it was certainly handy to check in with them about their experiences of approaches to behaviour in school, and how that may be different now compared to the past.

To kick things off, Michelle Burman summarised the WSA evaluation and challenges that we all grapple with when trying to gather data and the complex mind field that is our data collection systems. Yes, you know who I mean – Frameworki, Swift, Care First, the helpful yet sometimes frustrating systems for recording important things we do!

Michelle highlighted that inconsistencies remain in terms of how elements for WSA function across Scotland, citing pre-referral screening (PRS) as one area with particular inconsistencies. Albeit, it was undoubtedly a challenge to understand WSA and how it works, there were some key messages from Michelle about partnership working as a necessity to make WSA work and also messages about co-location as a means of “greasing the wheels”, speeding up discussions, decisions and generating trust.

The issue of rights was something that was touched on throughout the day and Bill Whyte provided us with that perennial reminder that Scotland lags far behind the rest of Europe when it comes to minimum age of criminal responsibility. After eight years working in Youth Justice, if there is one thing that I will never forget until my dying day, thanks to Bill, it is the Beijing Rules! (And for those who don’t know, The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice, often referred to as the Beijing Rules, is a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly regarding the treatment of juvenile prisoners and offenders in member nations).

In questioning why we are not there yet, the barriers to achieving this appear to simply be invisible ones with all agencies represented at the conference appearing  warm to the idea that we should  not be criminalising primary school children. To share a personal reflection on the matter, I asked my daughter, who turned eight recently, how she had enjoyed her birthday and what did she think about now being criminally responsible? Her response summed up the position of Scotland’s children nicely.

“Dad, if I am criminally responsible now (I’m paraphrasing a bit here) who was responsible yesterday?

(Me) That would be your mother and I

“Dad, so if I do something wrong, but don’t know that I have, can the Police put me in jail?

(Me) Not quite put you in jail…so, what things do you know are wrong?

“Hitting, stealing, swearing, talking over others….can the Police arrest me for interrupting?!”

The final part of this conversation, I’m sure you’ll be pleased to hear, I clarified in terms of the police role. However, it is clear that at aged eight, yes, children have a vague understanding of right and wrong; however, the complex nuances of the law and dynamism within the ranges of moral reasoning remain abstract and confusing for us all, never mind when you reach the grand old age of eight and receive the happy birthday you are now criminally responsible handshake!

Sheriff Duff chaired the afternoon session and started by responding to a question posed by CYCJ in relation to how much knowledge the judiciary have of WSA, and how those of us working with WSA engage with sherriffs.  Sherriff Duff told us that it is likely that sheriffs are not aware of WSA, although there are examples out there of sheriffs who have been really engaged in the philosophy. Reassuringly, Sheriff Duff told us that he would explore how input on WSA could be included in training for sheriffs, which I think everyone would agree is a long-standing gap.

The last input of the day came from the Crown Office. David Harvie started his input with a clear message that from his agency’s perspective, prosecuting children is not the preference. A point made during the day both by David and Paul Main from Police Scotland was that on some occasions public protection is necessary, and again to quote Bill Whyte, some young people need to be held by buildings rather than people. However, being slightly critical, there remain questions in practice about some cases that appear to still end up in court and more specifically, frustrations about those cases held by the Crown Office for extended periods of time, where given the nature of the alleged offences there are limits to the work that can be done.

I will leave you with a question that I think defines what Bill Whyte would surely claim is a “hole” in the Whole Systems Approach:

Is it ever appropriate to prosecute young people? The Edinburgh Study tells us that we need to keep young people out of formal systems and that may promote desistence – therefore, surely it is always in the public interest to divert them away from this system, so to prevent further victims?

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