Executive's crime policy in the dock in first sitting of youth court
SCOTLAND’S first dedicated youth court will sit for the first time today.
In the dock alongside the persistent offenders will be the Scottish Executive’s tough new approach on dealing with delinquents - with the youth court seen as the first test of the pledge made by the First Minister, Jack McConnell, to rid Scotland’s streets of teenage tearaways.
But critics of the plan, which will see children as young as 15 electronically tagged, claim the Executive’s crackdown is misguided, after official figures revealed little change in offending by young people in the last ten years.
In contrast, crime figures released last week showed an increase in robberies by 17 per cent, the number of rapes up by 9 per cent and serious assaults up by 5 per cent.
In the pilot area, in Hamilton, South Lanarkshire, persistent offenders - those charged with three crimes in a six-month period and within the 16-17 year age group - will be dealt with through the youth court system.
Some children aged 15, who are identified as potential beneficiaries of intervention by the court, will see their case referred to the sheriff instead of the Children’s Panel.
The fast-track process will see those charged appear either from bail or custody within seven to ten days and face trial within 50 days. Currently, the sheer bulk of cases in the adult judicial system means delays of up to a year before a case is heard.
A wide range of measures will include, for the first time in Scotland, tagging orders instead of prison remand. Fiscals will work with police and social-work departments to identify those who will go before the four designated sheriffs at Hamilton Sheriff Court.
In addition to the custodial and non-custodial powers currently available, the youth court will utilise community service, probation and new community programmes, where social workers will intervene to offer help with accommodation, education and training for offenders.
Superintendent Caroline Scott, from Strathclyde Police, said the court would not provide a soft option.
She said: "I think it will be a deterrent. It is not the only answer, but it will give communities who have suffered a chance of some respite."
She added: "Youth crime has become a high-priority issue [in the Executive]. Over the last ten years, persistent offending in this age group has increased by 40 per cent, although youth crime overall has decreased."
Supt Scott added that the youth court would target those who cause the most damage to communities by either addressing their social needs in an attempt to break the cycle of offending or, if that failed, by depriving them of their liberty.
The two-year pilot, covering North and South Lanarkshire, will cost an additional 1.5 million to run, and will be independently evaluated to assess the impact on communities and the youths who have gone through the system.
In the first year, it is expected that up to 600 young people will have their cases referred to the youth court, with about 120 placed on the community-support programmes.
Children’s charity Barnardos yesterday expressed doubt that the fast-track court would impact on the cycle of persistent offending. They claim that the re-offending rate among young people who have been before England’s youth courts stands at almost 90 per cent.
Jim Brisbane, the regional procurator fiscal for Lanarkshire, said that, in serious cases, the Crown would seek to prioritise the court’s time to deal with the accused.
He added: "There is a recognition that things can be done better. The sheriff will have a range of options available, but the objective is to tackle the cycle of offending by breaking that pattern of behaviour."
Eddie McAvoy, the leader of South Lanarkshire Council, said: "These services will challenge young people to consider their behaviour and will help them to keep out of trouble - it should reduce the negative effect this behaviour has on our communities."
Cathy Jamieson, the new justice minister, will ultimately decide whether to roll out the youth court system across Scotland after the evaluation of the Hamilton pilot.
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