Preventing offending: getting it right for children and young people

Our Youth Justice strategy for Scotland, for 2015 to 2020.

Improving life chances

There will be a strategic focus on:

  • school inclusion
  • strengthening relationships and engagement
  • victims and community confidence
  • improving health and wellbeing
  • opportunities for all
  • transitions

Children and young people who present a high risk of offending and particularly those involved in serious and violent offending are often highly vulnerable, with complex needs. In many cases these young people have themselves been victims of crime, neglect and abuse and a number are looked after children. In order to deal effectively with high risk cases, intensive interventions make it less likely that the young person will cause serious harm and end up in prison, potentially for most of their adult life.

F indings from the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime [12] , a longitudinal study of pathways into and out of offending amongst 4000 young people in the city of Edinburgh, tell us that:

  • serious offending is linked to a broad range of vulnerabilities and social adversity
  • early identification of at-risk children runs the risk of labelling and stigmati si ng
  • pathways out of offending are affected by critical moments in the early teenage years

In particular school inclusion and diversionary strategies facilitate the desistance process. This strategy is founded on a shared commitment to dealing with the issues raised by that evidence.

Our priority is to improve life chances for children and young people involved, or at risk of becoming involved, in offending. That is not to excuse or minimise offending. Dealing with it and supporting young people to move on is the best way of reducing reoffending and minimising the number of future victims. Work to improve joint working for looked after children is a priority area and is included in the Looked After Children strategy.

As part of a preventative, child-centred approach to improving wellbeing and life chances, a particular focus is needed on education, employability and health issues.

The quality of relationships young people experience is a key factor in building on their strengths as well as helping to manage risks.

It is important to recognise the strengths and potential of young people rather than focusing solely on problems to be fixed.

Supporting work on school inclusion

The total number of exclusions reduced from 44,794 in 2006-07 to 21,955 in 2012-13 [13] . Innovative work is taking place in a number of areas and schools are working with a range of partners to support children and their families to maintain positive links between the child, the school and the child's family.

In partnership with Education Scotland, local authorities and other agencies, we have supported the development of a range of approaches which encourage the creation of peaceful learning environments, promote positive behaviour and social and emotional wellbeing.

Curriculum for Excellence places emphasis on establishing and maintaining positive relationships as part of its broader purposes. The Behaviour in Scottish Schools Research 2012 [14] demonstrates that investing time and resources into improving relationships and behaviour in establishments leads to positive outcomes around inclusion, engagement and achievement in the short terms, community safety and cohesion in the longer term. Promotion of positive behaviour through whole school ethos and values is recognised as the most helpful approach to improving behaviour.

Included, Engaged and Involved Part 2: a positive approach to managing school exclusions [15] provides advice and guidance for schools and local authorities on how to prevent the need for exclusion as well as the procedures and legislation around exclusion.

We will:

  • Work with school professionals to build capacity and awareness about working with young people involved/at risk of involvement in offending by the end of 2016
  • Share good practice throughout Scotland in approaches to school inclusion with a focus on preventing offending by the end of 2016
  • Ensure that young people at risk of disengaging from education are identified early and supported. This will include support for families and will include collaboration with Education Scotland and local authorities

Strengthening relationships and engagement

For those who are involved in offending, building and maintaining positive relationships are key to supporting them to face up to offending, make change and develop the skills and confidence to move on with their lives. Without supportive and stable relationships, it can be difficult for young people to break away from a cycle of offending behaviour.

Families have a crucial role in supporting children and young people involved in offending, working with them to make, and to sustain, changes. It is important that families are empowered to recognise their role in children's lives. Families also sometimes need support to help their children and young people move away from offending. Family interventions can play an important role in improving outcomes for children and young people.

In March 2015, the Centre for Youth and Criminal Justice ( CYCJ) and Space Unlimited published 'Youth in justice: Young people explore what their role in improving youth justice should be' [16] . This highlighted the importance of consistent, high quality relationships. These relationships show a practitioner's belief in the worth and potential of the young person, helping them understand to their choices and demonstrates a level of commitment to the young person and caring about what happens to them. There is also a need to help create the conditions where

children and young people can be active participants in change.

Children should be helped to take responsibility for their decisions and actions in line with their stage of development and understanding. Most children and young people who offend will mature into responsible adults. The labelling of children's behaviour as 'criminal' can be harmful, as it has potential to stigmatise and reinforce negative self-image and behaviour.

Children and young people may need help from parents, carers, teachers and other adults to build their personal resilience and so become better able to respond to the trauma, bereavement and the failure which some have experienced.

We will:

  • Help create the conditions for children and young people to be active participants in change and improving youth justice
  • Promote positive relationships between young people, their families and communities to help develop social networks and build resilience
  • Support workers to build quality and consistent relationships
  • Enable gender specific approaches where appropriate, recognising strengths and needs in relationships as part of the focus on tackling inequalities. This will include a national training programme to support practitioners working with girls and young women by October 2015

Victims and Community Confidence

Recognising the impact of crime on victims is integral to an ethical and effective response to offending. It is also important for young people who offend to be supported to build the capacity to acknowledge harm caused and make good for the harm done.

Information and support needs to be tailored to the needs of the recipient. Where children are victims of crime committed by other children there is a particular need to ensure that a child-centred, wellbeing approach is taken to their needs. A child who is a victim of crime may present other concerns and changes in behaviour which can put them at risk and appropriate and timely interventions may be required. In addition, young people who are involved in offending are often victims of harm themselves. Today's 'offending' child is often a victim of yesterday's harm - the cycle needs to be broken. Research from Victim Support's 'Hoodie or Goodie? The link between violent victimisation and offending in young people' [17] showed that if a young person is the victim of a violent crime, there is a risk that the person will go on to become an offender themselves.

In 2011, Victim Support Scotland were commissioned by the Victims and Community Confidence Group, a group set up under the Preventing Offending by Young People Framework, to undertake a six month research project, with the objective of scoping an evidence base and national service model for supporting young victims. The findings [18] indicated that young victims of crime require a variety of support methods in order to cater for their broad ranging individual needs.

The Victims and Witnesses (Scotland) Act 2014 [19] makes a number of improvements to the information and support available to victims and witnesses. Key measures include giving victims and witnesses new rights to information about their case; raising the age at which individuals are treated as child witnesses to 18; widening access to additional support; and establishing a new support fund for victims, paid for by offenders.

We will:

  • Encourage use of restorative approaches where appropriate
  • Ensure that victims' rights and needs are systematically reflected in the work undertaken with young people who offend
  • Encourage better and more regular engagement with communities about youth justice to build awareness of, and support for, the Scottish approach

Improving health and wellbeing

Better health and wellbeing is integral to GIRFEC, Curriculum for Excellence and Health Improvement. This encompasses positive mental, emotional, social and physical wellbeing and helps children and young people to develop positive relationships and make healthy lifestyle choices.

Learning about health and wellbeing includes physical education, food and health, substance misuse, relationships, sexual health, parenthood, social and life skills - dependent on the age, development and maturity of each individual child. As a result, children will be more self-assured and will have more awareness of the effect their actions can have on others.

For children and young people involved in offending there are often associated issues relating to substance misuse, mental health and speech, language and communication issues. There are particular risks and concerns about the impact of New Psychoactive Substances ( NPS) or 'legal highs' on children and young people, including in relation to offending.

Child and Adolescent Mental Health is already a priority area in the Mental Health strategy (2012-15) [20] . Some young people involved in offending who have mental health problems, but perhaps not a mental health condition, may have difficulty accessing appropriate services. The last two years have seen a rise of over 30% in the number of young people starting mental health treatment [21] . There is a need for the health service to be properly equipped to give support and treatment to those vulnerable young people and funding will be provided over the next five years to ensure improvements are made to mental health services for children and young people.

It is important that these issues for children and young people are dealt with in a non-stigmatising way that helps to build their resilience.

We will:

  • Support prevention and early intervention to improve health and wellbeing through Curriculum for Excellence, GIRFEC and Health Improvement
  • Build on the work already undertaken on substance misuse to include New Psychoactive Substances. This means developing knowledge, skills and information on evidence based practice for those professionals working with children and young people by 2016
  • Improve understanding and enhance capacity in relation to mental health and trauma through practice development and supporting services for young people
  • Promote dialogue with key partners to ensure needs and methods of working with these children and young people is reflected in Scotland's Mental Health Strategy
  • Improve awareness and support of speech, language and communication needs of children involved in offending

Opportunities for All

It is important that young people who have offended can have hope that they will be able to find employment in the future. Opportunities for All provides the framework to support all young people to participate in post-16 learning, training or work.

Employability is a key priority both as part of a preventative approach and as a targeted area of support to ensure that young people who have been involved in offending, including those sentenced, can move on.

Scotland's Youth Employment Strategy - Developing the Young Workforce [22] i s underpinned by a seven year national programme aiming to reduce youth unemployment by 40% by 2021.

Developing the Young Workforce is about ensuring all young people access the broadest range of opportunities for work related learning. The Scottish Government is working with businesses and other partners to ensure stronger partnership working between education and employers and ensuring that the recruitment of young people is at the centre of workforce planning across the private, public and third sectors.

As part of joint programme working on cross-cutting themes consideration has been given to how we best support particular groups of young people. One of these groups is young offenders and work has been initiated with Her Majesty's Young Offender Institution ( HM YOI) Polmont to consider how young offenders can benefit from the new opportunities on offer.

The Community Jobs Scotland ( CJS) programme provides support and job training for vulnerable young unemployed people aged 16-24, and is aimed at helping them back into sustainable employment. CJS in Phase 4 (2014-15) included a pilot programme of 100 places for young people with an offending history and this has been further developed for Phase 5 (2015-16) to include a pilot programme of 20 places for young ex-offenders up to age 29.

Employer led 'Invest in Young People' Groups will have an important role and guidance on school and employer partnerships will be available in Autumn 2015.

We will:

  • Ensure that low level offending as a child does not negatively affect opportunities for securing education, training or employment as an adult
  • Implement changes on disclosure of childhood offences in 2016 to reduce the impact on future life chances
  • Ensure that young people who have disengaged from education or have left school are supported to re-engage and participate in learning, training or an Activity Agreement to develop the skills they need
  • Build relationships with employers, to help them see the strengths and potential of our children and young people including those who may have a criminal record


Effectively managed transitions can transform lives, protect society and save money . Young people need support to transition effectively from the community to secure care or custody and when returning to communities after periods of being accommodated or sentenced. Evidence from Skills Development Scotland [23] indicates that just 16% of young people leaving HM YOI Polmont move on to positive destinations - that must improve.

Planning for a young person's transition needs to start before the process itself. If accommodated or in custody, planning for their return to community needs to start at the 72 hour review, which is a required part of the process on admission.

Housing support is a priority area particularly for those young people moving on from secure and custody. Homelessness amongst young people has been falling in Scotland due to the development of housing options approaches by local authorities and their partners. This focusses on addressing needs including helping individuals to access mediation, employability and health services.


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