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.

3 Background, aims and set-up

Key messages

  • In line with theory and evidence on problem-solving justice, the Aberdeen Problem-Solving Approach ( PSA) aims to reduce the risk of reoffending by combining the authority of the court with support and rehabilitative opportunities provided by other agencies.
  • It targets women, and young men under the age of 26, who already have seven or more convictions and are at risk of custody. They have their sentence deferred during which time they must engage with service providers and return to court regularly for judicial review.
  • 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).
  • The time required from lead professionals in the set-up phase should not be underestimated.
  • Now that the PSA has bedded in, local partners should review the eligibility criteria including whether it might be appropriate to target people with fewer than seven convictions but at risk of accumulating many more.

3.1 What is problem-solving justice?

Problem-solving justice is an approach where contact with the criminal justice system is used to combine punishment and support in an attempt to reduce crime. Internationally, attempts to increase innovation in criminal justice have seen developments in court-based approaches aimed at solving offenders' underlying problems. Judges play a central role in problem-solving courts; the aim being to support rehabilitation by integrating the court's authority with other services. The key features (Bowen and Whitehead, 2016) of problem-solving courts include:

  • Specialisation of the court model around a target group
  • Collaborative intervention and supervision
  • Accountability through judicial monitoring
  • A procedurally fair environment
  • A focus on outcomes.

Scotland has been at the forefront of developing problem-solving approaches within the criminal justice field. This has included developing specialist problem-solving courts for problematic drug use (McIvor, 2009; 2010), domestic abuse (Reid Howie Associates, 2007) and, more recently, problematic alcohol use.

Glasgow and Fife drug courts were introduced in 2001 and 2002 respectively (McIvor et al., 2006). Evaluation of the Scottish Drug Courts indicated that pre-court review meetings and court-based reviews were a crucial element of the Drug Court process, with the dialogue between sheriffs and participants serving to 'encourage, motivate and sanction' those who were on court orders. Identified strengths of the Drug Court included 'fast-tracking' individuals, a trained and dedicated team who had regular contact with participants, and the system of pre-court review meetings and reviews. Challenges highlighted by the review included a reliance on particular forms of intervention (for example substitute prescribing) with less scope for others (notably abstinence based provision). The difficulty of engaging some individuals beyond initial contact with the drug court team also proved a challenge, highlighting the importance of comprehensive assessment at the outset.

Similar findings are evident from evaluation of Domestic Abuse Courts, initially established in Glasgow, in 2004, and subsequently Edinburgh, in 2012. Evaluation of the first Domestic Abuse Court (Reid Howie Associates, 2007) found that the pilot made a number of improvements to the process and practice for dealing with domestic abuse. It also evidenced high satisfaction, in comparison to traditional courts, from victims, witnesses and other stakeholders. Many benefits were identified in comparison to traditional courts including increased effectiveness of the response to domestic abuse, increased level of guilty pleas, higher rates of conviction and reduced case attrition. The Reid Howie Associates (2007) evaluation, like the evaluation of the Scottish Drug Courts, also provided evidence of increased efficiency, with faster processing, development of an appropriate and consistent response based upon expertise and increased multi-agency working, which was supported by appropriate information sharing. The alcohol problem-solving court established in Edinburgh in 2016 has also shown initial benefits such as quicker and more focused assessment; and benefits through partnership work, holistic response and ongoing judicial oversight (Centre for Justice Innovation, 2017).

More broadly, the use of judicial progress review is evident as a form of problem-solving justice (McIvor, 2010b; 2012) for example, in relation to Drug Treatment and Testing Orders (Eley et al., 2002) and with potential for use in Community Payback Orders. The Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010 contains provisions for judges to undertake regular reviews of Community Payback Orders, although there was initially evidence of limited use (McIvor, 2012). The evaluation of pilot drug courts and youth courts in Scotland has, however, highlighted that sentencers' approaches to reviewing orders are highly individualised and context-specific with markedly contrasting practices observed (McIvor, 2012).

International evidence that problem-solving courts reduce reoffending and improve compliance with court orders is promising. Overall however, it would appear that specialist problem-solving courts are effective in some contexts while less so in others. Bowen and Whitehead (2016) in an evidence review of problem-solving courts highlighted somewhat mixed evidence regarding problem-solving courts' effectiveness more broadly. While there was evidence that adult drug courts reduced substance misuse and reoffending, evidence from US studies on juvenile (under 18) drug courts was that they appeared to have either minimal or harmful impacts on young people. Family treatment courts and family drug and alcohol courts appeared to be effective in reducing parental substance misuse and could reduce the number of children permanently removed from their families. Mental health courts were likely to reduce reoffending, although they may not directly impact on participants' mental health. Importantly, Bowen and Whitehead (2016) noted promising evidence in a UK context to support the application of the key features of problem-solving courts to two specific groups where multiple and complex needs were identified: women who were at risk of custody and young adults (aged between 18-25). While using PSA with younger people (under 18) in a youth court context may have some benefits, a strong caveat was the potential harm that formal criminal processing can have on outcomes for young people. However, more broadly, Bowen and Whitehead concluded that the evidence on the distinctive needs of young adults ( i.e. those aged between 18-25) suggests that there is potential for a specialised PSA to improve outcomes. They note, however, that at this time there is no 'evidence-backed model' to demonstrate the impact of it working in this way.

3.2 Rationale for the Aberdeen Problem-Solving Approach

The Angiolini Commission on Women Offenders, whose remit was to consider the evidence on how to improve outcomes for women in the criminal justice system, reported in 2012 [3] . One of its recommendations was to pilot a problem-solving court for both women and men:

In order to provide a broader evidence base than is currently available on the effectiveness of the Problem-Solving approach, a pilot of a Problem-Solving summary criminal court should be established for repeat offenders with multiple and complex needs who commit lower level crimes. This pilot should run for male and female offenders.

The Aberdeen Problem-Solving Approach ( PSA) was developed in response to this recommendation.

3.3 Aims of the Aberdeen Problem Solving Approach

In line with the theory and evidence described in section 3.1 above, the Aberdeen Problem-Solving Approach ( PSA) aims to reduce use of short custodial sentences and to reduce the risk of reoffending by combining the authority of the court with support and rehabilitative opportunities provided by other agencies.

Specific groups for intervention are identified ( i.e. women, and young men under the age of 26, who already have seven or more convictions and are at risk of custody). Those accepted onto the PSA receive a structured deferred sentence ( SDS) for a specified period of time during which they must engage with service providers and return to court regularly for judicial review.

It is intended that the consequences of non-compliance (including the possibility of a custodial sentence) are made clear to participants, so that this motivates them to engage with services (which they might not otherwise engage with) and they perceive the process as fair.

Jillian's Story

Jillian is 44. She started using heroin in her early twenties and, from then onwards, served a succession of short and medium-term sentences for drug-related offences and shoplifting. Since she started using heroin, she had never been out of prison for longer than around nine months at a time.

She doesn't really remember what she was told about the PSA when she agreed to take part: "they probably did tell me – but I was probably off my face". But her motivation to take part was the chance to access support which would, she hoped, help her come off drugs and stop offending. She was given a nine month structured deferred sentence.

Jillian had scheduled appointments with her social worker once a week and with her Aberdeen Women's Centre support worker once a week – although there was considerably more contact with both of them than that (by phone and in person). She was extremely positive about both workers. They were " great. […] really, really good, really helpful, really supportive". They provided practical help ( e.g. to move out of hostel accommodation and into her own flat, and to register with a GP) and worked with her (through a mix of talking and different resources/tools) to help her deal with her drug use and offending. She felt that she now understood much better the risks, the consequences and the impact on others of her drug use and offending. They also referred her to a third sector organisation which works with people to help them sustain their tenancies.

Jillian had monthly reviews in court with the same sheriff. She remembers being "so nervous" about the first couple of reviews because " I've never spoken to a sheriff in my life… [but after a couple of hearings] you realise they are human". She described the sheriff as " fantastic… she spoke to me on a personal level". Jillian felt that the sheriff could see that she was making an effort and the sheriff's praise and encouragement mattered a lot to her:

She did praise me a lot…. That's a really BIG thing when you're standing in a court… she said that "I can see that you're making a big change in your life".

Jillian made very good progress and was able to greatly reduce her drug use and her offending. The longer she was able to stay out of prison, the more determined she was to stay out : "jail is so easy but you don't realise how great it is to have your freedom".

There were some difficulties along the way including a couple of weeks when – having met up with an old friend – she returned to heroin use again. However, at her next review the sheriff said "you've had a set-back but don't let this put you back to the beginning".

At her final review after nine months, she was admonished. Since then, she has started a course at the Women's Centre which she is finding useful " it's brilliant… it's about thinking about what would you do in different situations". And she is still in regular touch with her social worker and support worker.

She thinks that without the PSA "I would be just the same as before".

3.4 How was it set up?

The set-up phase involved close partnership working among the different agencies involved and professionals praised each other's' commitment, enthusiasm, 'can-do' attitude and willingness to co-operate.

Lesson for other areas
The importance of having the 'right people' in place (at the set-up stage and beyond) was stressed – which generally meant those with a positive attitude towards the PSA concept.

An all day workshop was held to enable the different agencies to discuss their respective roles in the PSA and their views on how it should operate ( e.g. what the eligibility criteria should be and what the rewards and sanctions should be). This was chaired by the sheriff principal and involved representatives from partner agencies including social work, procurators fiscal, court staff, the police and the Scottish Government. The Centre for Justice Innovation were also involved and provided guidance on the PSA evidence base. The sheriff who led on the set-up felt this workshop worked extremely well in ensuring that those involved had a stake in the pilot and 'wanted it to work'.

Lesson for other areas
The sheriff who took the lead on 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 Aberdeen findings in this report.

All key stakeholders met a number of other times during the development and initial implementation stages. One of the CJSW professionals noted the importance of these meetings for discussing and resolving issues. In addition to the benefits for the PSA, she felt there were wider benefits in terms of helping build relationships and strengthen communication among partner agencies.

Lesson for other areas
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.

Guidance documents were produced and awareness raising and training sessions were held with staff from the key stakeholder groups involved: CJSW, the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, Police Scotland, and defence agents.

The resources required for the PSA's delivery (including estimates of the time input from the different professionals involved) are described in Section 4.4.

3.5 What are the eligibility criteria?

3.5.1 Eligibility criteria and target groups

The PSA target group is women and men who have a prolific offence history and have complex needs. What counts as 'complex needs' encompasses the types of individual experiences and social-structural issues identified in the Angiolini Report (2012): addictions and substance misuse; mental health issues and trauma; histories of abuse (including physical and sexual abuse, and abusive relationships); and social circumstances such as issues with housing, state benefits, unemployment, or lack of education.

The specific eligibility criteria for the Aberdeen PSA are shown in Table 3.1. The criteria for the men were based on those for the women with the key difference being that the men's pilot was aimed at young men aged 16-25.

Table 3.1: Eligibility criteria



Summary complaint in Aberdeen Sheriff Court

Aberdeen City Council residents aged 16 or over

√ 16 or over

√ 16-25 years old

Prolific offenders with multiple and complex needs

First appear for a matter on or after a set date

√ 2/11/2015

√ 15/8/2016

Not on an existing Community Payback Order with a supervision requirement

Seven or more substantive criminal convictions in the recent past

Or: Two or more assault convictions if they would benefit from early intervention


Assessed by a Social Worker as medium to high risk in terms of needs/re-offending

Amenable to and might benefit from the problem-solving approach and having progress reviews

At risk of custody

Others who do not meet all of the criteria but, for exceptional reasons, may be suitable

Certain types of offences are excluded from the PSA: Department of Work and Pensions ( DWP) fraud; breaches of bail conditions or court orders; and more serious assaults (with the rationale that custody is probably required for more serious assaults). Drink driving offences are excluded for women, but are not excluded for men.

The PSA's operation was flexible, and there was some scope for discretion to admit individuals onto it (for example, men who may be slightly older than the 25 years stipulated in the criteria). Initially, participants were drawn from custody but the PSA was then opened to those appearing on citation or undertaking. It was also agreed that those subject to or in breach of CPOs could be transferred onto the PSA – generally in circumstances where they were coming to the end of a supervision order or when the sheriff considered PSA might be useful and this has happened a number of times.

At the time of this Review (November 2017), the PSA had 16 current cases: nine women and seven men. Overall, the number of participants has been less than the 50 per year anticipated at the outset which would have been 25 current cases at one time (assuming six months per case). 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). Whereas we might speculate that there would be more of a steady stream of young men who meet the criteria coming through.

Whether the numbers should be increased (for example, by widening the target below) is something for consideration and is discussed below.

3.5.2 Were criteria fit for purpose?

Criminal justice social workers and defence agents held similar views about the appropriateness of the eligibility criteria. They called for a more discretionary approach to PSA admissions to be considered, particularly for young men: "I think the key here is the complex needs not the number of offences" (criminal justice social worker). Some would therefore like formal revision of the criteria to enable less heavily convicted people to be admitted to the PSA if they fulfilled other criteria and had clear issues that the PSA might address. They saw this as an opportunity to address the complex needs and problems implicated in a person's offending before they become more 'entrenched'. One of the sheriffs was also keen that it should be about 'individual tailoring' rather than the formal criterion of a minimum number of offences: " It is for complex needs and you can identify the complex needs before they have been through the system as many times as they have".

However, another view was that it should remain focused on " prolific offenders to justify the extra resource input".

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).

Revision to the criteria would clearly, however, have resource implications if this resulted in increased numbers at points of assessment and admission.

APSA area for improvement
Now that the PSA has bedded in, local partners should review the eligibility criteria – including whether it might be appropriate to target people with fewer than seven convictions but at risk of accumulating many more.


Email: Ella Edginton

Back to top