A new report into the treatment of young offenders in Scotland has recommended raising the age of criminal responsibility to 16 and creating a discrete justice system for 16 to 21-year-olds.
Kilbrandon Again, which was commissioned by Action for Children and the Young People’s Commissioner for Scotland Bruce Adamson, cites the suicide of 16-year-old William Lindsay in Polmont as damning evidence of the need to take under-18s out of adult courts and jails.
As The Scotsman revealed, William killed himself within 48 hours of being remanded into custody at Polmont after appearing in court on a charge of possessing a knife. Social workers and the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration wanted William, who was still under a compulsory supervision order, kept within the Children’s Hearings System and placed within a secure unit, but there were no spaces available.
Chaired by writer, broadcaster and campaigner Richard Holloway, the three-strong Kilbrandon Again panel criticised the way four out of five of the country’s secure units, which are run by charities, are reliant on market forces. Polmont YOI is funded by the Scottish Government.
As a consequence, it says, the charity-run secure units – Kibble, St Mary’s Kenmure, Rossie Young People Trust and the Good Shepherd – are under pressure to keep as many beds occupied as possible and take referrals from English local authorities. Around half of the country’s 84 beds are being used by children from outwith Scotland – a figure that roughly equates to the number of boys under the age of 18 in Polmont. Kilbrandon Again recommends secure places are provided on the basis of need and the practice of using Scottish secure places for children from other jurisdictions should be re-examined.
While accepting Scotland’s welfare-based system is preferable to more punitive ones elsewhere, the report also identified a series of weaknesses in the Children’s Hearings System. These include the panels being made up of lay people with no guaranteed expertise or qualifications and the lack of continuity, with no requirement for panel members from a previous hearing to attend subsequent hearings, even where the same referral is continued. The panel also found the system did not appear to offer the opportunity for children to raise their concerns in absolute confidence at any stage in the referral process.
Kilbrandon Again suggests efforts should be made to recruit panel members from the communities the majority of the children come from.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the report is the raising of the age of criminal responsibility. The Government is already committed to raising it from eight to 12, but the report recommends lifting it to 16.
Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton said: “The UN is expected to raise the baseline age of criminal responsibility to 14, as the absolute minimum, by February while the Scottish Government sluggishly sets the age at 12. The SNP are making changes based on decade-old international demands and claiming to be progressive.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said the report’s findings would be considered, adding: “Raising the age of criminal responsibility to 12 is the right reform for Scotland at this time and will mean that we are leading the way in the UK, ensuring no child under 12 will be treated as a criminal or accrue a criminal record.”