Crime and Criminal Justice Research Findings No. 432000
An Evaluation of the SACRO (Fife) Young Offender Mediation Project
Becki Sawyer, Social Research Unit, System Three
The SACRO (Fife) Young Offender Mediation Project began in January 1996 and is based on principles of restorative justice. Management of the project is multi-agency, with a Working Group consisting of representatives of SACRO, the Reporter's Office, the Social Work Department and police. The project is based on three main principles: early intervention; inclusion of a victim perspective; and voluntary reparation. The project is aimed at young people between the ages of 11 and 16 showing signs of developing a pattern of offending behaviour.
- The research found strong support for the project which was seen as a useful alternative to existing disposals and, by many, as a more effective approach to the problem of juvenile justice.
- Between January 1996 and October 1998 the project processed a total of 505 cases, involving 343 individuals.
- The vast majority (89%) of young people referred to the project were male and the most common age at which young people were referred was 15.
- Nearly three-quarters (72%) of young people involved in the project were referred on only one occasion. However, the remaining young people were referred more than once - ranging from twice (for 65 offenders) to 8 times (for one offender).
- Most cases (84%) involved young people charged with only one offence. The maximum number of charges within a single case was 5. The most common charges were for theft and vandalism.
- Most victims were private individuals but 38% were corporate victims (public and commercial).
- The research identified a delay between the time of offence and when the police refer the case to the Reporter. Excluding this stage, cases appeared to be processed relatively quickly.
- Some, particularly parents and victims, felt that the project was a soft option, while others felt that it was a relatively difficult disposal for the young people involved.
- There was some evidence that parents and young people did not understand that they had a choice whether or not to take part.
- Detailed information was obtained on 117 of the 343 young people. Of the 87 who actually participated in the project, 54 (62%) were not referred to the Reporter again in the following 12 months.
Introduction and background
The evaluation of the SACRO (Fife) Young Offender Mediation Project is based on 28 qualitative interviews with young offenders, their parents, victims and professionals; analysis of the SACRO database of all offenders referred to the scheme between January 1996 and October 1998; and, analysis of tracking information relating to a sample of offenders referred to the project. It also draws on data generated from a postal survey of offenders, victims and parents conducted by SACRO.
The Young Offender Mediation Project in operation
SACRO is responsible for the day-to-day running of the project, however, overall management is based on a multi-agency approach. The Working Group - consisting of representatives of the police, Social Work Department, SACRO and the Reporter's Office - meets every two months.
The decision to refer a young person to the project lies with the Reporter. Cases deemed suitable for referral are then discussed with the SACRO project workers and, if relevant, the Social Work Department. The project is aimed at young offenders living in Fife between the ages of 11 and 16 years and aims to target young people showing signs of developing a pattern of offending behaviour. It is not designed to deal with first time offenders.
Number and characteristics of cases
Between January 1996 and October 1998 the project dealt with 505 cases, involving 343 individual offenders. Most of those referred to the project were male and, while there was a wide range of ages, most young people were aged 14 or 15 years old.
Table 1: Age of offenders
11 or under
In 359 of the 505 cases, the young person agreed to participate in the project and subsequently did so.
The project dealt with a wide range of offences. The most common types being theft, vandalism and assault. Most cases involved a young person being charged with only one offence.
The project aims to ensure no more than 6 weeks elapses between the offence being committed and referral to the Reporter. However, only a quarter (23%) of cases achieved this target. This problem is being addressed by the police.
Overall, the process is, however, relatively swift, with 83% of cases going from offence to actual completion in a 6 month period. The average length of a case, from committal to closure, was 9 weeks.
General perceptions of the project
While there was almost universal support for the project's restorative justice principles, there was a perception, particularly among parents and victims, that the project was, and should be, punitive. By contrast, those involved in delivering the service were keen to stress that the project was to help the young offenders to make amends and not to punish them.
The project focuses specifically on particular incidents and on a young person's offending behaviour. This was seen as an additional resource, as more traditional approaches cannot devote as much attention to this aspect alone, due to their broader, welfare-based remit.
Both the Reporter and SACRO provide young offenders, parents and victims with information about the project (for example, about what it is trying to do and why they have been invited to take part). Potential participants receive written information, followed by a visit (or sometimes a telephone call) to discuss the project in more detail. Information provision appeared to be satisfactory with most of those involved being aware of the project's restorative aims.
Despite the apparent adequacy of the level of information provided, there appeared to be some confusion, particularly among young people and their parents, about the voluntary nature of the project. For some young people, much of this arose from parents telling them they had to participate.
Who should go to the project?
Although the project is aimed at 11 to 16 year-olds, occasionally, and after careful consideration, children below this age are referred. Parents and victims felt that the project could be used for children of all ages and that it might be particularly effective with younger children.
The project is not aimed at first-time offenders but, instead, those young people showing signs of developing a pattern of offending behaviour. However, two main issues arose from this. Firstly, many parents and victims considered the project to be an ideal way of dealing with first-time offenders and it was thought the project would be more effective than, for example, a police warning in deterring young people from offending in the future. By contrast, project staff felt this would result in unnecessary net-widening. Secondly, there appears to be some evidence that, despite the aims of service providers, the project is involving young people who show little evidence of a pattern of offending behaviour.
While very serious offences, such as rape and murder would, of course, be dealt with by the adult criminal justice system, no particular types of offences were automatically excluded from the project. Most felt, however, that sexual offences were usually inappropriate for inclusion in the project.
The individual programmes
There are 3 main options available to young people agreeing to participate in the project: undertaking a task for the victim or the wider community; meeting the victim face-to-face to discuss their offending behaviour; and, finally, writing a letter of apology or explanation to the victim.
Occasionally, an offender may not undertake any of these three options but instead participate in a non-mediation programme which concentrates on addressing their offending behaviour without any victim involvement. Young offenders may also agree to a non-harassment agreement.
The victim is responsible for deciding which of the options the young offender should undertake. Project workers provide guidance on the suitability of options and, in general, victims tend to be reasonable in their requests. SACRO works hard to ensure that whatever the young person does, the experience is not degrading or humiliating, despite the fact that some victims and parents feel this would be an effective way of reducing offending among young people.
The most common option was to undertake a task either directly for the victim of the particular offence or a task for the benefit of the wider community. Seeing the results of their offending behaviour was thought to be the best way of making young offenders think about its consequences.
While face-to-face meetings between victims and offenders were often considered to be the most likely of the disposals to impact on a young person's thinking about criminal behaviour, these were relatively uncommon. Young people who did participate in such meetings tended to find the experience difficult. The personalisation of an offence often made young people feel guilty about what they had done and made them associate their actions with the end result. There was little evidence, however, to suggest that it was any more successful than any of the other options available.
Table 2: Type of programme undertaken, by sex
Task for victim
Letter of apology
Duplication of previous
Parents are able to attend the meeting between the offender and the victim, if the offender so wishes. SACRO are, however, aware that in some cases the presence of parents can be counter-productive. The suitability of a parent's presence is decided on the basis of the circumstances of each individual case.
Writing a letter of apology and explanation was thought to be useful if used in conjunction with other programmes. However, some parents, victims and young people themselves, thought that just writing a letter was a 'soft option' and would not impact on a young offender's behaviour. By contrast, SACRO project workers felt that writing a letter was a difficult process for many young people and a valuable exercise in getting them to think about the reasons for, and consequences of, their offending behaviour.
How effective is the Mediation project?
While there is no conclusive evidence to say how effective the mediation project has been in terms of its three main aims - raising awareness of offending behaviour, providing an opportunity for young people to make amends and to prevent re-offending, most people interviewed felt that it was more likely than more traditional approaches to be successful.
The project was seen as particularly important in raising awareness of the consequences of offending behaviour because of the focus on the offence and the involvement of the victim. Many felt that more traditional disposals, such as police or Reporter warnings, did not make the young person face up to what they had done.
The involvement of the victim appeared to be beneficial to both the young offender and the victim. Victims generally felt that traditional approaches to juvenile justice neglected them, whereas the SACRO project allowed them to become directly involved.
As with evaluations of any criminal justice programme, it is very difficult to assess the impact on levels of recidivism. In an attempt to ascertain such an impact, SACRO and the Fife Reporters joined resources to track young offenders referred to the project for a 12 month period. However, information was only available for 117 young people and analysis of the tracking forms could not, therefore, produce conclusive results.
Of the 117 young people for whom tracking information was available, 87 (73%) actually participated in a programme and 54 (62%) of these were not referred again to the Reporter in the following 12 months. There appeared, however, to be no apparent difference in referral to the Reporter in the 12 months after their initial referral to the project between those who participated and those who did not.
While the 87 young people who participated in the programme for whom tracking information was available undertook a range of different options, there appeared to be no evidence to suggest that any single option was more successful than the others.
The research identified strong support from both service providers and service users for continuation of the project. Many felt that it filled an existing gap in the juvenile justice system.
A small number of weaknesses were identified, namely a delay in getting reports from the police to the Reporter, a contradiction between the rhetoric of who the project is aimed at and who is actually referred to it, some confusion over the voluntary nature of the project and, finally, a perception by some that it is a soft option.
The main strengths of the project were identified as early intervention, the direct focus on the young person's offending behaviour and making amends by involving the victim.
'An evaluation of the SACRO (Fife) Mediation Project', the research report summarised in this Research Findings, may be purchased (price £5 per copy).
Cheques should be made payable to The Stationery Office and addressed to:
The Stationery Office Bookshop, 71 Lothian Road, Edinburgh EH3 9AZ
Tel 0870 606 5566 Fax 0870 606 5588
This Research Findings may be photocopied or further copies may be obtained from:
The Scottish Executive Central Research Unit
or Telephone 0131 244 2114