Review of the Aberdeen Problem Solving Approach: report

Review of the Aberdeen Sheriff’s Court’s Problem Solving Approach for prolific female and young male offenders.

Executive Summary

The Aberdeen Problem-Solving Approach

The Aberdeen Problem-Solving Approach ( PSA) has been running in Aberdeen Sheriff Court since November 2015 (for women) and since August 2016 (for young men). In line with theory and evidence on problem-solving justice, it aims to reduce the use of short custodial sentences and reduce reoffending by combining the authority of the court with support and rehabilitative opportunities to address the underlying causes of offending. Unlike traditional problem-solving courts, which target a specific crime ( e.g. domestic abuse) or problem ( e.g. drug use), the Aberdeen PSA's 'specialisation' is people with a history of frequent low-level offending with multiple and complex needs. Those admitted into the PSA have their sentence deferred while they engage with service providers for a specified period of time, during which they must return to court for regular judicial reviews with a dedicated sheriff.

Review aims and methods

Ipsos MORI Scotland and the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research/University of Stirling conducted an independent Review of the PSA between August 2017 and January 2018. The Review aimed to:

  • Provide useful evidence about how the PSA is delivered and what (if anything) distinguishes it from normal sentencing procedures
  • Identify areas for improvement, lessons learned and good practice that other areas could learn from
  • Explore and describe the experiences of people with convictions who have been admitted to the PSA and, where possible, identify any emerging short term outcomes for PSA participants and the courts.

A mixed method approach was adopted. This involved primary qualitative research (interviews and focus groups with PSA participants, professionals involved in delivering the PSA and wider stakeholders), court observations, and secondary analysis of routinely collected monitoring data. The qualitative research provided rich data on participants' experiences and the perspectives of participants, professionals and wider stakeholders on: how the PSA is being delivered; what distinguishes it from other sentencing procedures; what is working well; what could be improved; and lessons for other areas. The court observations enabled further comparisons with other sentencing procedures. The analysis of the monitoring data provided some quantitative data on the profile of participants (including risk/needs assessment), engagement, compliance and sentencing outcome.

The Review reports on perceived short term outcomes based on interviews with PSA participants and professionals and on analysis of the monitoring data, but was not intended to draw firm conclusions about the approach's impact, and is limited by the small number of people who have been admitted to the PSA to date (30 women and 18 men).

How problem-solving works in practice

Key features of how the PSA operates in practice include:

  • Potential participants are screened by Criminal Justice Social Work ( CJSW) using lists of people released on undertakings and people subject to appear from custody. The vast majority of screenings (95%) are undertaken without the need for face-to-face contact, because individuals can be easily eliminated due to clearly not meeting the eligibility criteria. Potential cases are flagged to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (there is a dedicated procurator fiscal depute) and if the decision is taken to proceed, a rapid report is then prepared by CJSW and sent to the PSA sheriff ahead of sentencing.
  • Those admitted had a Structured Deferred Sentence ( SDS) imposed. The majority (80%) of SDSs were for six months initially. Of the 48 SDSs imposed so far, nine had been extended (for between one and six months).
  • At the time of this Review, the PSA had 16 current cases, which is less than the 50 per year (and 25 at any one time) anticipated at the outset. This may be, in part, because 'saturation' point has almost been reached with the women ( i.e. most of the women in Aberdeen who meet the criteria will – by the nature of their offending profile – have come through Aberdeen Sheriff Court at some point since the PSA started). Whether the numbers should be increased (for example, by widening the target group) is something for consideration.
  • In line with the target group, those referred had considerable offending histories (the majority had more than 10 convictions and at least three custodial sentences in the last five years), had encountered significant adversity (financial difficulties and experience of trauma and/or abuse, in particular) and most had a 'high' or 'very high' risk of re-offending (based on LS/ CMI [1] scores).
  • Individuals accepted onto the PSA are allocated a criminal justice social worker and a support worker. They usually meet with each at least once a week. CJSW provide direct one-to-one work with participants and referrals to other services ( e.g. housing, or withdrawal management and rehabilitation services).
  • Participants attend court reviews on a regular basis (usually monthly although this is flexible). Before the review, the sheriff receives a brief update report from CJSW which is then discussed in court. The sheriff hears from the participant's defence agent, social worker and the participant themselves, about what progress has been made since the last review and what their goals are over the next few weeks. The sheriff provides praise, warnings and encouragement as appropriate.
  • Both professional respondents and PSA participants acknowledged that there were various reasons why individuals agreed to take part in the PSA. For some, the primary consideration was a desire to avoid a remand in custody or a custodial sentence. For others, the offer of support was welcome.
  • Regardless of initial reasons, participants reported that once they began receiving support, their motivation to comply often increased. Workers' proactive support meant that there was an investment and desire 'not to let them down'. Similarly, the positive encouragement from the sheriff and the interaction of the reviews increased the importance for some participants of 'doing well'.
  • Overall, participants' attendance at PSA reviews, compliance with the PSA plan and engagement with services was moderately good. Around three-quarters attended all, or all but one, of their PSA reviews and the majority complied at least 'fairly well' with their PSA plan.
  • PSA reviews take place between 9.30 and 10.00am (on the two to three days a week on which they were held) in a small room in a part of the court rarely accessed by the public. The only attendees are those participating in the proceedings.
  • The physical layout and format of the court in which the PSA is held is moderately formal and traditional. However, the communication between people within PSA court hearings is considered less formal and more individualised and interactive than 'standard' court hearings, for example, Community Payback Order ( CPO) hearings.
  • At each review, the sheriff takes into consideration a participant's compliance with the PSA plan and any evidence of offending and decides to: continue the SDS; end the SDS and admonish the participant; or impose an alternative sentence (usually custodial).
  • PSA participants can still access social work support (and support from other services they have been linked up with such as addiction support) on a voluntary basis following exit from the PSA – and are encouraged to do so.

Distinguishing features of the PSA, compared to the way other community sentences are used in Aberdeen, include:

  • The fact that the Structured Deferred Sentence ( SDS) defers sentence and is not a statutory order
  • The prospect of admonition upon completion of the SDS which may act as an incentive
  • The allocation of both a criminal justice social worker and a support worker and (typically) weekly appointments with each
  • Judicial supervision and multiple review hearings set at regular intervals (typically every four weeks). This is similar to a Drug Treatment and Testing Order but unlike most CPOs
  • Participants and professionals felt that PSA review hearings were 'more personal and motivational' than CPO reviews
  • There was broad consensus among professionals in Aberdeen that the PSA and its use of SDSs is more flexible than a CPO, especially in relation to responding to non-compliance and breach.

Emerging outcomes – what people think about problem-solving

  • Participants – including those who were back in custody – were overwhelmingly positive about the PSA's overall impact on their lives.
  • Professionals were also very positive about the PSA overall – while acknowledging that it was less successful for those with more entrenched problems and who were not at a point where they were ready to change.
  • Among the 35 participants whose cases had closed, 14 had completed their SDS and been admonished, two had completed their SDS but received another sentence and 19 had not completed their SDS (13 of these participants had received a custodial sentence). While this may not appear to be a high rate of successful completion, the profile of participants must be borne in mind – almost all were considered at risk of custody and faced multiple problems. The fact that over half of participants were not in custody by the end of their involvement in the PSA is very encouraging – although assessing the extent to which this is sustained would require a longer evaluation.
  • Positive outcomes reported by participants included: reduced reoffending, reduced substance use, improved housing situations, improved mental health and wellbeing and improved social skills and relationships. Professionals also observed these outcomes – although they acknowledged that the PSA was less successful for those with more entrenched problems.
  • The barriers to successful completion identified by both professionals and participants were not, in the main, problems caused by the way the PSA operates. They were: the complexity of participants' problems; unstable substance use; the influence of family and associates; the intervention not coming at the right time in terms of readiness to change; and lack of access to services and support (such as housing and mental health services).
  • Given the small numbers so far, there is a limit to what can be said about the characteristics of women who complete their SDS compared to those who do not. (The numbers of men are even lower so we cannot say anything at this stage about the characteristics of men that might predict success). Women who did not complete their SDS were slightly more likely to have been assessed as living in unstable and/or unsuitable accommodation. There was also a difference in the total LS/ CMI scores (indicating that those who did not complete were 'riskier' overall), driven primarily by differences in the education/employment domain.
  • Professionals agreed that, although success was less likely among those with more complex and long-standing problems, there were always 'surprises' and it was very difficult to predict who the PSA would work for.

Areas for future consideration or improvement

The main areas for improvement identified in the Review were:

  • Overall, most professionals thought that the eligibility criteria should be reviewed although there were mixed views about whether it should continue to target prolific offenders or whether the criteria should be changed to allow earlier interventions ( i.e. also targeting those who were not – yet – such prolific offenders).
  • The findings emphasise the importance of effective exit planning and, in particular, ensuring that participants understand from the outset what support will be available to them when they exit the PSA.
  • Professionals should remain alert to the risk of up-tariffing. In particular, there is a risk that concerns about insufficient support after completion may lead to up-tariffing in order to keep someone on the programme (and engaged with services) for longer. As noted above, exit plans and clarity about access to continued support after completion are also important in this regard.
  • For a small number of participants, the PSA had been working effectively up until they had charges called in another court, over which the PSA had no power. Although they had been making good progress on the PSA, they were re-arrested on an outstanding warrant and returned to custody. It was suggested that this requires a more 'joined up approach' across courts and data collection systems to ensure that information on PSA participants can be passed between courts. Sheriffs and other court professionals were currently working to resolve this issue.
  • While relationships between staff in the different partner agencies appeared to be good, there is scope to improve communication further to ensure that all stakeholders (and new staff, in particular) are aware of the PSA and how it works – and have the opportunity to contribute suggestions for improvement. It was suggested that the multi-agency meetings that were held during the set-up stage should be reinstated. Community justice partners could also be involved, to ensure everyone is up-to-date with changes happening in the local area and to consider any potential impact on the PSA.
  • There should be more regular communications to stakeholders (particularly those not as closely involved in the PSA on a daily/weekly basis e.g. other sheriffs and defence agents who did not have clients on the PSA) to ensure they remain aware of the PSA and, in particular: criteria for admission; process; potential outcomes for participants and what their roles are in relation to it. This should help increase participation.

Advice and learning for other areas

A summary of the key learning points from this Review, for stakeholders in other areas to consider, is provided below.

Setting up a problem-solving court

  • The set-up phase involved close partnership working among the different agencies. Professionals praised each other's commitment, enthusiasm, 'can-do' attitude and willingness to co-operate. They stressed the importance of having the 'right people' in place ( i.e. those with a positive attitude towards the PSA concept).
  • Multi-agency workshops and regular meetings are important in the development and early implementation stages to ensure buy-in, build relationships and resolve teething problems.
  • The sheriff who led the set-up from the judicial side spent a considerable amount of time reading, attending conferences and talking to other professionals during the development of the PSA pilot. She advised that colleagues in other areas who were considering setting up a PSA should not underestimate the time involved – though other areas will, of course, benefit from the findings in this report.

Running a problem-solving court

  • Sheriffs and defence agents actively identifying potential participants helps to improve engagement as potential participants can be given information about the PSA and what participation might offer at a significant point in the process ( i.e. when appearing in front of a sheriff or meeting with the defence agent). This reinforces the importance of raising awareness of the PSA among relevant professionals.
  • The PSA process can bring all outstanding charges together to be dealt with at one point, which both professionals and PSA participants saw as an important feature of the process. With all cases rolled together, the participant could be admonished in relation to some of the charges to recognise and reward compliance, thus increasing incentives.
  • The rapid report (produced within seven days of the offence compared to 28 days for other orders) is a key benefit of the PSA. This enabled swift sentencing: there was an average of 15.5 days (for women) and 11.3 days (for men) between the case's first calling and sentencing.
  • Time-tabling participants' monthly reviews required considerable organisation to fit them into the court schedule and sheriffs' rotas.
  • The fact that only those directly involved in the participant's case were present at the hearings, and that there were no onlookers in the public gallery, was very important to participants. They felt that this facilitated more open and honest discussion.

Making it work in a local context

  • The PSA's success is reliant on having appropriate local services to which PSA participants can be referred. For example, having the Women's Centre already established in Aberdeen was considered to be hugely valuable.
  • The benefit of having a predisposal social work team based in council premises adjacent to Aberdeen Sheriff Court was noted. This facilitated access to potential participants and communication among the professionals involved.
  • It was suggested that transport issues (in relation to participants attending meetings and reviews) could present a potential issue for effective operation in rural areas. Criminal Justice Social Work in Aberdeen provided participants with bus tokens which they felt worked very well to help them attend meetings and reviews.

Estimating the resources required

Estimating numbers of participants

  • The data on numbers screened and referred (3644 screened of which 48 were deemed suitable and had an SDS imposed) and on current cases (16), provides a rough guide that other areas could use to estimate the likely numbers of cases. However, there may be differences in the demographic/criminogenic profile in different areas and any proposed differences in criteria should also be borne in mind.

Estimating the staff resource required

  • The PSA was supported by Scottish Government funding of £78,721 p.a. for CJSW activity (2016/17 and 2017/18 [2] ). This funding was used to employ a social worker and a support worker. This resource was fully utilised. Although the total numbers have been less than anticipated, professionals reported that the amount of support that participants have required has been greater.
  • The data on the time input required per case from different professionals could be used as a rough guide by other areas. Again, however, differences in local processes (both existing processes and the agreed process for the PSA) should be taken into account. A case with six review hearings required an estimated 28 hours of PSA-specific work, the majority of which was undertaken by social work (14 hours). The sheriff also contributes approximately 4 hours per case. (Note that this does not include the ongoing support provided by social workers and support workers).


The PSA in Aberdeen has been successfully implemented and is running as intended (albeit with lower numbers than were originally anticipated). Relatively intensive support is combined with the authority of the court (through regular court reviews involving personal interaction with the sheriff). Both elements are important in supporting participants to address the causes of their offending and reduce their offending.

Overall, the PSA shows promise and we recommend that Community Justice Partners in other parts of Scotland give consideration to the benefits of a problem-solving approach in Scottish courts. In doing so, the local context, in comparison with Aberdeen, should be taken into account. Given the lack of robust impact measures currently available, it will be particularly important that robust monitoring and evaluation processes are built into any new pilots, to continue to grow the Scottish evidence base.


Email: Ella Edginton

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