Airborne closed at peak of success, figures show

THE row surrounding the Airborne Initiative for young offenders intensified last night after new figures revealed it was closed down despite displaying some of the best results in its history.

Campaigners fighting to save the rehabilitation unit in Lanarkshire believe the Scottish Executive’s decision to shut down was ill-timed, because the centre had shown a marked improvement in the number of people finishing the course.

The latest figures indicate that last year some 39 inmates graduated from Airborne - the second-highest number in the ten years it has been running.

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Clive Fairweather, the former chief inspector of Scotland’s prisons who is supporting a move to reopen the project, described the decision to close as perverse. He said: "The Executive made the decision to close the unit in a year when they had the second highest number of completions.

"If ministers were ever going to shut it, this was not the best time. The time to close would have been way back in 1996 when only ten people completed the course.

"Pass rates have actually improved. There have been significant improvements and the centre has gone from strength to strength."

Experts in the field of criminal justice believe that Airborne is being judged too harshly, given the fact that the facility deals with some of the country’s most persistent young offenders. Although re-offending rates are high, graduates of the unit are significantly less likely to re-offend than young men sent to jail.

The furore surrounding Airborne is particularly significant in the light of figures published yesterday that show Scotland’s prison population at an all-time high. The number of prisoners rose by a further 2 per cent between 2002 and 2003, from 6,404 to 6,523.

John Scott, a solicitor-advocate, said the new development confirmed that overcrowding remains a major problem in Scotland’s prisons and alternatives to custody, like Airborne, must be encouraged. This decision to close Airborne guarantees that the prison population will continue to rise, he said.

"The unit was tackling some of the country’s most difficult offenders. Given the fact that these were repeat offenders, there will always be a high drop-out rate.

"If these young people are not at Airborne, they will be in jail. In terms of reoffending, prison and detention are about as unsuccessful as you can get."

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Eleven of Scotland’s most dangerous young criminals are back on the streets after the Executive withdrew almost 600,000 of funding from the centre at Braidwood House, Lanarkshire, forcing it to close with the loss of 26 jobs.

Ministers have been accused of negligence, given the high risk of re-offending by inmates on their release. A previous batch of 21 youths on the nine-week course had 250 convictions and 80 years in jail between them.

Critics believe the project was axed after ministers were embarrassed by Chancers, a fly-on-the-wall documentary which showed inmates taking drugs and absconding.

Although the Executive insisted the centre had failed to perform, insiders believe the decision to close was political and linked to the high-profile policies on youth crime proposed by Jack McConnell, the First Minister.

Earlier this week, a national campaign to save Airborne was launched by some of the country’s senior figures. In an open letter to The Scotsman, the group of 23 appealed directly to the First Minister in a bid to rescue Airborne.

Supporters of the so-called boot camp for young offenders include Lord Prosser, the retired High Court judge; the peer and retired businessman, Lord Macfarlane of Bearsden; Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh, and the author, Ian Rankin.

Today, MSPs will meet staff and graduates of Airborne at the Signet Library, in Edinburgh. Robin Harper, the Green Party MSP, tabled a parliamentary motion which has already been signed by a group of 18 MSPs.

The First Minister has insisted that ministers were right to withdraw funding from the unit, which they said did not provide value for money.

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