Leaders: Young offenders deserve help to mend their ways | Human ingenuity is a wonder to behold

SCOTLAND has long had a progressive attitude to how we as a society respond to criminal activity by young people.

SCOTLAND has long had a progressive attitude to how we as a society respond to criminal activity by young people.

Our system of Children’s Panels is often held up as a great example around the world as a model of how to deal with troubled children. When offenders are over the age of 16, however, the challenge is different and in many ways more difficult, and requires another approach.

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Yesterday, HM Inspector of Prisons, Brigadier Hugh Monro, described as “quite shocking” the apparent inability of facilities such as Polmont young offenders institute to rehabilitate young men in the 16-21 age group. This was despite the spending of 
£65 million over the past six years on bike repair workshops, hairdressing salons and other training resources aimed at equipping offenders with skills that might be useful in finding a job on the outside once their time behind bars is complete.

It is important that we draw a distinction between adult offenders and young offenders. Many older prison inmates are career criminals for whom a few months in jail is an occupational hazard. That does not mean we should not try to rehabilitate them, but the statistics on recidivism are not encouraging.

All the more important then, to catch young offenders before they fall into a pattern of crime that with each successive conviction makes them harder to reach. If, at a relatively young age, we can turn them away from a lifetime of crime, we will be doing society as a whole a huge favour.

But how to do it? The difficulty in getting teenagers to do what they do not want to do cannot be underestimated, as any parent of teens can ruefully attest. What if they simply will not engage?

A simple lesson from family life may hold the key. There cannot be many parents of teenagers who have not resorted to bribery in order to get their way, with the enticement taking the form of cash, treats, privileges or gadgets.

Many people might quite reasonably balk at the thought of giving a convicted criminal treats above and beyond what was necessary for shelter and sustenance – in the public at large, sympathy for the plight of convicted criminals is not in great supply.

But these are teenagers who we must be able to hope – at least for a few years – are able to be turned from a criminal life. The stakes are high: if they can be persuaded to sign up to programmes where they learn a skill, the evidence shows that they have more of a chance of a crime-free future. Surely this means that we can justify a little bit of an incentive, even if some of us might do so through gritted teeth?

Brigadier Monro yesterday contrasted the time and attention that had been spent on Cornton Vale women’s prison in recent years with the attention devoted to Polmont. “This is a seminal moment in how we deal with young people,” he said. His words must be heeded, and extraordinary challenges require extraordinary measures.

Human ingenuity is a wonder to behold

WE ARE reminded all too often of the human race’s capacity for malevolence and stupidity, so it does us good every once in a while to take a moment and marvel at its ingenuity as well.

Perhaps we in the media must take our share of the blame – what is news is all too often dominated by death, destruction, conflict and disaster. Such things present themselves in dramatic form. The quiet and painstaking work of scientists, technicians and medics in addressing some of the failings of the body are, by their nature, less likely to grab a headline. But they are equally capable of changing the world. The scientific and medical advances that we report today, that have allowed some blind people to gain a degree of vision through the fitting of a microchip at the back of the eyeball, are still capable of invoking a degree of wonder at what humans are capable of achieving.

The revolutionary treatment could provide hope for sufferers of the hereditary condition retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disease that has left 15 million people around the world permanently blind. The work by Professor Eberhart Zrenner, of the University Eye Hospital Tubingen in Germany, has allowed trial patients the capacity of make out shapes and facial expressions. It is a remarkable achievement, with the capability of transforming many lives.

Coming on the back of recent advances that have produced the first face transplant, the first bionic arm and the first bionic hand – which replicates the sensation of touch – together with groundbreaking progress in gene therapy, we may be allowed a moment, as a race, to celebrate those fantastic achievements.