Alternatives to secure care and custody: guidance

Guidance for local authorities, community planning partnerships and service providers on developing a whole system approach.

1. Introduction

This guidance is intended to provide an overview of 'good practice' for Local Authorities and community planning partners in relation to alternatives to secure care and custody. Examples of some alternatives services are in appendix 2 and pilot sites to test different alternative services in appendix 3. Throughout the document, links will be provided to associated guidance.

Scotland is internationally renowned for its welfare based response to children and young people who offend, but stands alone as the only western European country to routinely deal with 16 and 17 year olds in the adult criminal justice system and imprison this age group at a higher rate than elsewhere in Europe, contrary to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 1 . The Council of Europe have also ratified recommendations in the European Rules for Juvenile Offenders subject to Community Sanctions or Measures (June 2008) 2 . These recommendations further reinforce the UN Conventions but currently do not bind the courts in Scotland.

The Scottish Government is committed to giving children the best start in life and to improve the life chances of children, young people and families at risk. Tackling the causes and effects of offending by young people is key to building safe and strong communities, within which Scotland's future generation can fulfil its enormous potential.

The Reducing Reoffending Programme 3 was established following the publication of Protecting Scotland's Communities: Fair, Fast and Flexible Justice in December 2008 4 . The programme aims to reduce offending and reoffending and enhance public safety as well as reducing Scotland's prison population.

The Young People Who Offend strand of the programme is reviewing the current systems, processes and practices in place for dealing with the offending behaviour of 16 and 17 year olds and those presenting a risk of serious harm. The aim of the project is to reduce the number of young people (under 18) being dealt with in the criminal justice system and receiving custodial sentences. To achieve this, the project has worked with all stakeholders to:

  • develop integrated processes and services across children's and adults systems;
  • increase opportunities for diversion from formal measures targeted at young people;
  • increase opportunities for community alternatives to secure care and custody
  • develop a consistent approach to risk assessment & risk management
  • better support young people who attend Court/Court processes; and
  • improve services for young people in custody and reintegration to the community.

Scottish Ministers and the Convention Of Scottish Local Authorities ( COSLA) commissioned a short life working group tasked with finding sustainable solutions to capacity issues within the secure estate, termed the Securing our Future Initiative ( SOFI) 5 . The group's vision was to have no children in secure care whilst recognising that for the foreseeable future, some young people can only be managed in the controlled setting of secure care. The group made nine recommendations which were accepted in full by Scottish Ministers and COSLA.

Recommendation 9 states:

'We recommend that the current good practice in retaining vulnerable young people in the Children's Hearing System and ensuring access to services appropriate to their age and stage of development, should be promoted amongst local authorities, children's hearings prosecutors and courts. We also recommend a particular focus on the development and use of community based responses to young people who are prosecuted by the courts'.

The Scottish Government is clear, that where it is possible to meet the needs and risks of high-risk young people safely and cost effectively in their communities then these opportunities should be maximised. The Scottish Government is committed to promoting and supporting community based alternatives to secure care and custody; to work constructively with the courts; to work with partners to develop robust interventions to reduce reoffending and are committed to developing, supporting and evaluating robust responses to the needs and risks posed by high-risk young people.

For those young people whose risk cannot be managed in the community, secure care offers definite benefits by providing a secure environment, much needed 'breathing space' and facilitates assessment and care planning processes. This includes young people involved in offending behaviour and those with welfare concerns. Notwithstanding such recognised benefits, it is known that many young people passing through the secure system experience very poor outcomes. SOFI found that only a minority of young people fared well after leaving secure care and that girls had especially poor experiences of secure care. Secure care performs poorly in terms of reducing offending and around a half of young people leaving secure care return within a year.

Poor outcomes are also associated with young people in custody. Each year approximately 10,000 16 and 17 year olds end up in the adult criminal justice system with limited consideration given either to diversionary opportunities suited to their age and stage of development or the appropriateness of judicial procedures and whether young people can fully engage in the proces 6 .

  • a total of 120 16 and 17 year olds were in custody on 13th May 2011 7 ;
  • 2 of these young people were female; 118 were male;
  • currently, approximately 88% of 16 to 20 year olds released from custody are reconvicted within two years with 45% receiving further custodial sentences.

For under 16s, an extensive range of care and support services are provided to address offending behaviour but their availability and utilisation are inconsistent. For young people age 16 and 17 the services diminish further 8 . Too many people who have been through the care system end up in the criminal justice system and prison:

  • prisoners are 13 times more likely to have been in care as a child;
  • 63% of young people have substance misuse issues on admission to prison;
  • of all prisoners 80% writing, 65% numeracy; and 50% reading skills of an 11 year old;
  • 25% of these young people have clinically significant communication impairment 9 .

A Scottish Executive study into secure care and community alternatives in 2006 concluded that high risk young people could be helped with the provision of appropriate intensive community support services 10 , to address their problems within the community. The potential benefits of community-based services to divert high risk young people from secure care and custody have positive impacts not only on the young person him/herself and their family but also on the local authority in terms of significant financial savings.

The challenges associated with delivering robust community based measures that effectively and efficiently meet the needs of this group of young people are considerable. This guidance aims to offer local authorities and community planning partners credible alternatives and ways of working that are evidence based and designed to meet Government recommendations. It should be noted however, that the risk some young people present to themselves and others is such that secure care or custody may be the only option available to manage the risk.


Back to top