Whole system approach to young people who offend: evaluation

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

6. Conclusions

6.1 Taking account of difference

The three case study areas demonstrate some key differences in their baseline conditions, notably in relation to youth offending rates and referrals to PRS. These differences within local authorities are important, and may help to explain the different approaches and processes adopted by the authorities in implementing the WSA and some of the differences in observed outcomes. Flexibility in implementing WSA across local authority areas may be necessary to adapt to different contextual conditions and local demands. Relatedly, information-sharing and cross-fertilisation across WSA should be encouraged. For example, in one authority the WSA Lead had visited other parts of Scotland to see how the process worked in other authorities, tailoring the lessons learned to create best practice for the local authority's specificities. Such flexibility enabled policy to be developed from a wide knowledge base and tailored to local conditions.

It is also clear that there have been some changes at national level that appear to have impacted similarly across local authorities. Further work on the national and local impact of specific factors would be of value in this regard.

Notwithstanding the need for flexibility, there are some areas which may benefit from greater consistency across areas, including eligibility criteria for the WSA (for example, whether young people on supervision may be referred). This may be a matter of clarifying existing rules, or providing further guidance.

6.2 Implementation of Work Stream Activities

There is strong evidence that the three work stream activities are fully implemented in each case study area, although there are differences across each area which relate to, and reflect, variations in local authority size, scale and structure.

Whilst there is little evidence that there has there been a change or realignment in how resources are used in each local authority in relation to the workstreams, there has also been some necessary adaptation to the local specificities within each area. Differences in baseline conditions within local authorities are important, and may help to explain the different methodologies and processes adopted by the authorities in implementing WSA and the differences in observed outcomes. This also supports the need for flexibility within the WSA, rather than a fixed-framework, which allows authorities to adapt to local conditions and demands.

6.2.1 EEI/ PRS

Practitioners had clear views that the WSA improves outcomes for young people through multi-agency working, close information sharing and the strong incorporation of welfarist values in decision-making and practice. In this respect, the WSA supports the Kilbrandon principles (Scottish Home and Health Department, 1964), with decisions and actions premised on young people's needs rather than their deeds, that are consistent with the GIRFEC approach. Moreover, the WSA process is consistent with a strong body of academic evidence which shows that minimal intervention and diversion from criminal justice agencies results in better outcomes for young people (McAra and McVie, 2010).

Whilst we must be cautious about making any claims about the impact of WSA and EEI on overall crime rates within local authorities, EEI and PRS allows young people to receiving appropriate levels of support, whilst passing through the process with relatively little contact with formal agencies. Within the PRS process, offending behaviour is treated as a flag for welfare concerns, rather than a substantive issue in its own right. The diversity of expertise held by PRS partners allows the group to respond to an array of welfare concerns in a swift and informed fashion. PRS is a vital component in promoting information sharing between partners, and the face to face nature of PRS develops trust and professional understanding.

PRS referral rates fluctuated between the three authorities. In Authority A, the fall in referrals had allowed the authority to look to expanding their services to older age-groups. Conversely, in Authorities B and C, it remained a challenge to maintain the WSA at the current level. This was primarily due to the pressure placed on resources, including the end of seed funding in Authority C. As such, variations in resources and service availability impacts on EEI/ PRS outcomes.

6.2.2 Diversion from Prosecution

Overall there has been an increase in diversion, although the percentage age-distribution of diversion cases varies across the three local authorities. The majority of diversions in Authority A pertain to younger age-groups. In Authorities B and C young people account for a smaller proportion of all diversions. Between 2005/6 and 2013/14, Authority A reserved diversion for young people, with no diversions for over-26 year olds, whilst all diversions prior to 2008/9 involved 16-17 year olds. The expansion of diversion to those aged between 18 and 20 years in 2009/10 shows a change in policy and practice, which is in line with expanding GIRFEC to young adults up to the age of 21. Authority B reserved diversion primarily for older adults. Until recently 51 per cent and 62 per cent of cases involved those aged 31 years and over. Authority C diversion use is low, with no clear trends in terms of age.

Diversion from prosecution appeared suceptible to a more diluted WSA ethos due to staff churn. Whilst this has been offset by good professional working relationships with Fiscals, there is a precariousness in relying upon a single WSA champion within a single organization. Furthermore, key practitioners in all three authorities suggested that diversion from prosecution may function more effectively if the default position was diversion; and the onus was placed on the PF to justify prosecution for 16 and 17 year olds, rather than vice versa.

6.2.3 Court Support

The structure of court support services varied across local authorities. Some authorities commissioned court services, whilst others undertook the work in-house, which allowed control of the process and culture, and the allocation of skilled staff to more demanding cases. This was another example of flexibility which allowed teams to respond to fit their local authority's means.

6.2.4 Fixed penalties

In 2013/14, 4,364 fixed penalty notices were issued to 16 and 17 year olds, compared to 401 police warnings. There is debate concerning the efficacy of monetary penalties for reducing the risk of reoffending. Fines also carry the risk of a custodial sentence, should a person default. Whilst the overall number of fixed penalty notices issued to 16 and 17 year olds fell by 46 per cent between 2009/10 and 2013/14, the relatively high numbers of such penalties issued to young people seems antithetical to the aims of the WSA. The varying use of sanctions is not easily explained and this is an area in which further research is needed to understand the underlying rationales.

6.3 Partnership Working

As found in an earlier evaluation of the WSA (MacQueen and McVie, 2013), practitioners expressed their clear commitment to the core principles, goals and values. Partnership working is the cornerstone of WSA. Positive working relationships between the primary WSA partners were reported in all three local authorities. Whilst some professional relationships existed previously, WSA has had a galvanising effect and introduced new partners, thereby diversifying and strengthening the process. Improved relationships have fostered more information sharing between partners in all three areas. Multi-agency working and increased information sharing allows a more nuanced approach to decision-making that takes into account the circumstances of young people's lives. It is evident that multi-agency meetings and improved information sharing leads to better welfare outcomes for young people by providing partners of a fuller picture of the causes and contexts of offending behaviours, and how partner agencies, whether collaboratively or individually, can best respond.

6.4 Outcomes for young people

Assessing whether the WSA, in conjunction with other policy streams such as GIRFEC, delivers better individual outcomes for young people is not straightforward. As stated in Section one, the WSA data management has proven to be difficult for WSA practitioners. Overall the data is piecemeal and whilst it is possible to assess the operation of the constituent part of the WSA, it is not possible to assess the effects of the 'whole system'. For example, whilst it is possible to show that diversion has increased overall thus reducing the numbers of young people being drawn into the youth justice system, the WSA data is insufficient to track the progress of those diverted young people to assess the medium term outcomes.

The linking of EEI to positive outcomes for young people cannot be conventionally measured. This is because if EEI is successful in its goals then young people essentially disappear from the WSA data systems.

6.5 Lessons for Sustainability

The internal processes of the WSA appear to be robust and the primary partners are enthused by current levels of success and partnership working. Yet WSA success does not rest solely upon internal mechanisms and relationships, but also how it interacts with and negotiates the wider institutional and structural landscape within which it operates. This is particularly important for the maintenance of the WSA ethos in the face of countervailing forces and insecure funding streams.

Co-location of partners, or, at the very least, greater face-to-face interactions between partners beyond the fortnightly PRS/ EEI meetings, accelerates partnership working by generating trust. Co-location is considered important given the sensitive and nuanced approach required in addressing young peoples' needs, as well as making partner decision-making more instant and informed; all of which helps to secure better welfare outcomes for young people. It also promotes championing behaviours of partners; inculcating the WSA ethos by embedding practices and principles into everyday working patterns.

In order to affect culture changes within partner organisations, WSA champions are key, that is dedicated, vocational staff who can champion the ethos to partners who are not explicitly part of the WSA - notably frontline police officers who act as the primary source of referrals, and generic area social work teams. In both instances, reinforcement of the WSA ethos has been crucial in changing broader cultures of working. For example, Authority A was particularly active in awareness-raising of the WSA approach within the youth justice field. With these observations in mind, consideration might be given to a broader and more prominent program of education and public awareness-raising of the gains of the WSA.

Given the uncertain funding environment, WSA teams are required to be agile in responding or adapting to changes in the availability of resource. A good example of this adaptability is the dispersal of WSA responsibilities in Authority C to local generic social work teams; although this form of mainstreaming may not be feasible in other local authorities.

6.6 Research Gaps/Future Research

There is a need to develop a strong and robust data framework for the ongoing evaluation of the WSA, that will allow the flow of individuals through the system to be followed, and the outcomes for children and young people to be meaningfully captured (also Bradford and MacQueen, 2011; 4). This need was reinforced by a range of practitioners, including those outwith the case study authorities:

"Everyone uses a different system and getting one unified way of gathering information to share numbers [is difficult]. Because sometimes we're talking about number of offences, then others numbers of offenders, then others talk about episodes of offending. So how do you know you're all counting the same thing?." (Young People's Services)

As a matter of priority, we recommend that a set of indicators for the purposes of ongoing assessment and evaluation are established. A set of suggested measures is set out in Appendix A.

There is some evidence that some WSA decision-making processes (referral to PRS, diversion from prosecution) may be biased towards females. For instance, in 2013/14, 74 per cent of referred cases involving assault by under-16 year olds were female. The higher probability of referral to PRS for females than males suggests that decision-making may be implicitly infomed by a sense of 'chivalry', although this observation is based on limited data. This might be highlighted as an area for future research.

Finally, it is clear that the WSA works in conjunction with other approaches to youth offending, some of which are more offence-led. It is not entirely clear how these different approaches work together, or if one approach is more dominant than the other. Community Safety's involvement and the TAC meetings featured prevalently in this evaluation, with their role appearing positive in the main; however, this is an under-researched area of Scottish youth justice, which would alo benefit from further investigation.


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