Whole system approach to young people who offend: evaluation

An evaluation of our Whole System Approach (WSA) to young people who offend in Scotland.

1. Introduction

The Whole System Approach ( WSA) to responding and dealing with offending by young people in Scotland advocates the maximum use of diversion and early intervention, and represents a shift away from more punitive measures. Research evidence shows that young people's contact with formal criminal justice agencies can increase the likelihood of their reoffending; conversely, diversion from statutory measures, prosecution and custody, together with early intervention and robust community alternatives are more likely to result in postive outcomes for young people involved in offending (McAra and McVie, 2007).

Against this background, one of the key aims of the WSA is to try to keep 16 and 17 year-olds out of the criminal justice system. The approach is designed to provide police officers and staff with a range of options to ensure that offending by young people is dealt with quickly, appropriately and without referral to the Children's Reporter, unless compulsory measures are required.

The Scottish Government Whole System Approach for Children and Young People who Offend ( WSA) was launched in September 2011. The WSA is based on strong evidence which shows that the long term outcomes for young people involved in offending behaviour could be better served by diverting them away from statutory measures, prosecution and custody, and implementing early intervention and robust community alternatives (McAra and McVie, 2007). Research also shows that persistent serious offending is strongly associated with victimisation and social adversity, which should be addressed alongside offending behaviours (McAra and McVie, 2010). Thus, the aim of the WSA is to achieve positive outcomes for some of the most vulnerable young people in Scotland. These outcomes are to be achieved through:

  • Integrated processes and services across child and adult services;
  • Streamlined and consistent planning, assessment and decision making processes for young people who offend, ensuring they receive the right help at the right time;
  • Effective ways of working with high risk young people involved in offending;
  • Diversion of young people from statutory measures, prosecution and custody;
  • Increased opportunities for community alternatives to secure care and custodial sentences;
  • A consistent approach to risk assessment and risk management;
  • Improved support for young people attending court;
  • Improved services for young people in custody and reintegrating into the community.

The WSA encompasses three main policy strands. First, Early and Effective Intervention ( EEI), which was initially rolled out in 2008. EEI aims to reduce referrals to the reporter via pre-referral screening ( PRS). The police have the primary role in co‐ordinating and leading the pre‐referral groups, both in relation to offending, and care and protection. In practice, this means that a higher proportion of those who are referred to the Children's Reporter should be in need of compulsory supervision measures and therefore will be referred to a Children's Hearing.

Second, Diversion from Prosecution. This is a formal decision by the Procurator Fiscal which aims to keep young people away from the criminal justice process. On receipt of a police report, the Procurator Fiscal can choose to divert the young person to a local social work team or other service provider. The young person will undertake a programme and/or will be directed to services tailored to their individual needs.

Third, through Reintegration and Transitions local authorities aim to support all young people under 18 years in secure care and custody, and plan for their reintegration into the community. The provision of court support services for young people who offend is closely aligned to this policy stream.

This evaluation was commissioned by the Scottish Government in October 2014. The aim was to evaluate the process of implementing the WSA in three case study areas in Scotland and identify their initial progress towards the intended outcomes of WSA. Six broad objectives for the research were set out as follows:

1. To assess the extent to which WSA work stream activities have been implemented to date and whether there has been progress towards the short and medium term outcomes of WSA;

2. To establish what is working well and less well towards self-sustainability in the case study areas, and why;

3. To examine the mechanism of partnership working in the case study areas as well as understanding the differing methodology and flexibility used in partnership areas;

4. To assess whether there has been a change or realignment in how resources are used, and what are the drivers of change;

5. To demonstrate whether the WSA, in conjunction with other policy streams such as GIRFEC and Curriculum for Excellence, delivers better individual outcomes for young people;

6. To establish the lessons learnt for informed sustainability of the WSA and to share these more widely.

In addition to exploring these six main objectives about the implementation and outcomes of the WSA in the three case study areas, the research sought to provide a more overarching set of recommendations reflecting all Scottish local authorities in terms of:

  • Examining the extent to which the WSA is working and why;
  • Demonstrating the impact and likely future gains of the WSA for stakeholders;
  • Considering the benefits of fully committing to the WSA on a mainstreamed basis;
  • And sharing lessons with Scottish Government beyond the WSA development and delivery model.

1.2 Methodological Approach and Access to Data

Three case study areas were identified by Scottish Government for the evaluation of the WSA; these are referred to throughout the report as Areas A, B, and C.

The research team adopted a multi-method approach, combining scrutiny of WSA policy documentation and guidance notes for practitioners; a set of qualitative interviews; observation of WSA meetings in all three areas, and; quantitative analysis of relevant management data to inform the evaluation.

Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 33 key practitioners and stakeholders in the relevant local authorities. Interviews were digitally recorded, with the permission of interviewees. The aim of the interviews was to gain understanding of the experiences and views of local partners in relation to the strategic management, operation and impact of the WSA, with particular focus on the perceived effectiveness of the WSA and lessons for future practice.

Collation and analysis of quantitative information on overall trends in crime within the three local authority areas was undetaken using publically available data, from Scottish Children's Reporter Administration ( SCRA), Police Recorded Crime in Scotland, and Criminal Justice Social Work Statistics.

Management information on the operational and organisational elements of the WSA was also sought in each case study area. It was initially hoped that this would include detailed data on the development and implementation of WSA activities, communication mechanisms and partnership working between local partners, and the management structures in place to oversee and review the operation of the WSA. However, the available WSA monitoring data is limited.

As a complex multi-agency approach, the breadth and volume of quantitative data generated in relation to WSA is extensive, and it quickly became evident during the course of the evaluation that data management presented a challenge for practitioners. In terms of the evaluation, the following issues should be highlighted as factors which limited the scope of the enquiry and hindered it in meeting some of its objectives:

  • There was no consistent approach in the data management systems used to collect data on WSA or in the methods by which data could be extracted to explore either process or outcomes. In particular, existing systems lack the functionality to systematically track individuals through the various different routes they might take from initial referral to case conclusion.
  • There is variation between authorities in relation to the types of data that are subject to collection and monitoring. For example, one local authority actively monitored the duration between an offence and the date of the PRS, whilst others did not.
  • Some data were either unavailable, or difficult to access, including recorded crime data, disaggregated by age. Overall, the data available was piecemeal. This means that the constituent parts of the WSA can be assessed individually, but not as a part of a 'whole' system.
  • Data collection sometimes depended on individual members of staff and their experience, skills and decision-making as to which data to collect. This means that staff changes could (and did) affect existing and ongoing data collection arrangements.
  • Data issues also limited the scope of the evaluation. For example, it was not possible to draw robust quantitative comparisons between the authorities on some WSA processes or outcomes.

1.3 Generalisability

This evaluation examines the operation of the WSA in three Scottish local authorities, each with a very different geographical, demographic and organisational backdrop. The small-scale nature of the evaluation means that the findings should be read with caution, and are not necessarily generalizable to the wider population or to all local authorities in Scotland. Where applicable, we have sought to draw out common themes and findings that were evident in all three authorities, and which may reflect the implementation of the WSA more widely. In other places, we comment on differences in policy and practice, which cannot be generalized although they may be reflective of activities in other parts of Scotland. A wider analysis of all local authorities would be necessary to determine how representative these findings are of WSA country-wide.

1.4 Report structure

The report structure reflects the six broad objectives presented in Section 1.1. Section 2 provides an overview of youth crime in Scotland, and provides the wider context within which the WSA operates. By identifying trends and patterns in youth crime, and the extent to which there have been apparent changes in youth offending behaviour within, we draw some conclusions as to the effect of the WSA within Scotland. Focusing down on the three local authorities selected as case studies, we describe the changes in these areas with regards to referrals to the Children's Reporter on both offence and non-offence grounds from 2003/4 onwards and changes in joint referrals to the Procurator Fiscal and Children's Reporter from 2008/9 onwards.

Section 3 describes the implementation of the WSA in each of the three selected local authorities, and comments on the challenges and successes on the WSA's main work stream activities, namely Early and Effective Intervention, Diversion from Prosecution, and other components, including Court Support, Alternatives to Custody and Secure Accommodation. Responding to Objectives 1 and 3 this section discusses how the short and medium term outcomes of WSA have been achieved in each local authority, how the methods and practices in each area differ, and the reasons for these differences, with an emphasis on mechanisms of partnership working.

Section 4 , responding to Objectives 2, 4, 5 and 6, identifies some lessons learned across the three local authorities for the purposes of promoting the sustainability of WSA. This section addresses the wider institutional context in which the WSA operates, and the role played by cultural and resource considerations outwith the WSA process, that nonetheless impact upon its operation and effectiveness. Consideration is given to how practitioner uptake of the WSA ethos is influenced by the role of Police Scotland as gatekeepers to the EEI process, of the ancillary effect of Community Safety initiatives, and the importance that Getting It Right For Every Child ( GIRFEC) plays in affecting cultural change across partner organisations.

Section 5 focuses on the opportunities that are available to prospective WSA adopters, as evidenced from how practitioners have overcome some of the challenges outlined in Section 4. In particular, the effect of partner co-location and the development of dedicated WSA roles are discussed as mechanisms through which to promote WSA efficacy. This section concludes with a discussion of how these factors help sustain WSA practices, as well as their capacity to facilitate any possible expansion in the scope of WSA.

Section 6 provides a summary of the main findings derived from the evaluation, presented as recommendations so as to better inform future development of the WSA.


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