Alternatives to secure care and custody: guidance

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

4. Literature Review

Youth crime (covering those under the age of 21 years) accounts for more than a third (43%) of all recorded offences in Scotland. Official statistics show that it is boys who are responsible for the greater proportion of such crimes (approximately 87%). 17

There is a consensus within the literature that a certain level of involvement in trivial offending behaviour by youths can be considered a normal part of the process of growing up. McIvor 18 argues that adolescent offending is often 'linked to a range of other risk taking behaviours which in turn are associated with the search for identity in the transition from adolescence to adulthood'.

Key messages from the 'what works?' literature in relation to preventing a range of poor outcomes for children and young people (including offending) focus on providing early and effective intervention and a strategic approach to provision of services tiered according to levels of need and the age and stage of development of the young person. The criminological literature indicates that trends in antisocial and offending behaviour tend to be age-related which suggests that different forms of intervention will be required at different stages of the life-course 19 . In addition, it is unlikely that tackling offending itself will be successful without a range of measures aimed at addressing wider 'psychosocial disorders' that generally accompany offending (including substance misuse, mental health problems, eating disorders, self harming, etc) 20 .

Andrews et al 21 incorporated findings from 150 research studies in their meta-analysis and concluded that reviews of recidivism rates revealed on average that appropriate intervention 'cut recidivism rates by about 50%. 22 This analysis, along with others, suggests that the most effective forms of intervention aimed specifically at offending behaviour are likely to reflect a series of broad practice principles known as the RNR approach. The first directing principle is that efforts should be made to match the level of service provided, as appropriate, to the assessed level of need and risk (the risk principle). A second directing principle is that a priority for intervention should be to alleviate those factors that are judged to sustain and support criminality ( criminogenic need principle). In other words, intervention should be appropriately offence-focused for those involved in prolific or serious offending. A third directing principle relates to learning styles ( responsivity principle). Young people change and learn in different ways and not surprisingly there is evidence to support the importance of matching the delivery of programmes and practitioner skills to the characteristics of the individual young person and their needs, including communication or learning disabilities and more complex needs.

RNR has produced evidence to suggest that effectiveness is likely to be greatest where there is:

  • a focus on the nature and consequences of the offending behaviour;
  • an emphasis on problem solving and behaviour change, cognitive development, personal or social skills;
  • a diversity of methods of intervention;
  • use of positive authority;
  • an emphasis on community integration.

To do this in practice, a community-based wraparound approach can be seen as being the most effective. This approach, brings together, where this is possible, the efforts of significant individuals in the young person's life, where they exist, to provide a comprehensive plan for supervision. In a graduated system 'natural' resources may be supplemented by trained volunteers and as required by trained and specialist professionals as required. The approach aims to identify and build on the strengths of the young person and their family and to encourage behaviours that will reduce the likelihood of any further involvement with the youth justice system. 23 .

Wraparound Milwaukee 24 was developed as a coordinated system of community-based care and resources, initially for families and children with severe emotional, behavioural and mental health problems. The features of this care management model are the establishment of a 'provider network' that delivers a wide range of services and supervision. This model includes an individualised plan of care; a management system to ensure that services are coordinated, monitored and evaluated; a mobile urgent response team to provide crisis intervention services; a managed care approach including pre-authorisation of services based on contingency planning and service monitoring.

Outcomes for young people involved in criminal activity improved significantly, measured by the Child and Adolescent Functional Assessment Scale 25 , showing changes in the young person's functioning at home, at school and in the community. Reductions in re-offending rates were also encouraging 26 .

The research findings suggest that young people with complex difficulties, and in particular mental health problems, who are involved in offending, and then experience integrated and individualised wraparound planning within a system of care, are less likely to re-offend and spend less time in detention or other institutional provision. The model is based on the evidence that young people who are supported to stay in school, who do not run away from home, assault other people, or are not picked up by the police are likely to fare better in the long run. It attempts to address the multiple determinants of offending in a comprehensive and holistic way often lacking in traditional supervision practice.

The Wraparound Milwaukee model relies on 'core tasks' that provide a useful directing framework for all intensive supervision in the community:

  • identify key 'players' in the lives of the young person and family;
  • adopt a strong non-judgmental family-centred approach;
  • organise a wraparound 'team' or 'network group' and facilitate a meeting (group or family conference) to produce a creative service plan and meaningful action plan;
  • identify existing multidisciplinary services, assessing their usefulness to the needs of the young person and family;
  • prepare a services plan with outcome indicators and resource cost as appropriate;
  • assess the training needs and arrange for training of key individuals;
  • prepare a crisis plan and set expectations for unconditional care;
  • identify gaps and arrange to implement needed services that do not presently exist or deal with contingencies;
  • manage funds flexibly and work with staff responsible for finance;
  • deliver direct services as needed;
  • evaluate the progress of services, quarterly reviews, modifying service plans as needed;
  • prepare transition plans and long-term follow-up;
  • summarise outcome data for use in programme improvement.

Gender differences

In a meta-analysis of studies exploring the criminogenic risk factors associated with adolescent offending, Simourd and Andrews 27 found that the same criminogenic risk factors apply equally to both boys and girls. The main risk factors identified are; anti-social attitudes, associating with anti-social peers, low parental supervision, a lack of constructive leisure activities, educational difficulties, moral beliefs, victimisation and high levels of impulsivity and risk taking.

A longitudinal survey conducted for the Home Office 28 compared gender differences in risk factors for offending. Across a cohort of 397 families in Cambridge, they found that factors that predicted offending more strongly for girls were related to socio-economic and child rearing factors such as; low social class and income, poor housing, poor parental supervision, lack of praise, erratic discipline, parental conflict and a general lack of interest in the child's development. In contrast factors predicting offending more strongly for boys were related to actual parental characteristics, including having nervous and poorly educated parents. Overall the study found that sisters had shorter criminal careers than brothers, an average of 4.4 years for girls compared to 6.6 years for boys and in adulthood the prevalence of offending was found to be much higher for brothers (44%) compared to only 12% for sisters.

Explanations for why girls offend less than boys point to situational factors. It is argued that in comparison with boys, girls have less exposure to risk factors. Girls tend to be more closely supervised by parents, have less unstructured leisure time and therefore less opportunity to associate with anti-social peers 29 .

Research also shows that girls and boys respond differently to risk factors. Whilst girls tend to 'internalise' emotional problems and display their distress via depression and self-harm, it is argued that boys are much more likely to respond to problems by 'overtly acting out behaviours, including various manifestations of delinquency. It is well established that there is a lack of suitable resources for vulnerable young people, and in particular for girls, who have complex emotional, behavioural and mental health issues. As will be seen, too many of these young people end up in secure care because of a lack of suitable alternative community-based provision.

Assessment prior to secure admission needs to be holistic and focused on the needs of the young person as specified in the GIRFEC framework. Consistency in assessment prior to admission has also been identified as a key measure to improve the quality of secure accommodation decision making 30 .

As girls have different pathways into offending than boys, a more detailed analysis on the different approaches to working with girls to meet their specific needs will be addressed in more detail within this guidance.


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