YOUNG offenders face a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ rule under plans to tackle anti-social behaviour being considered by the Scottish Executive.
Unruly youngsters and their parents would receive two official warnings from police before being referred to youth courts or children’s hearings under the scheme.
The move is designed to cut offending rates and impose a Scotland-wide standard for dealing with juveniles who fall foul of the law.
Ministers are concerned that the present system relies too much on the views of individual police officers and has led to widespread variations in practice across the country, potentially undermining public confidence.
The plan follows evidence that a similar shake-up south of the Border led to a 19% cut in reoffending rates.
But child protection campaigners and opposition politicians warned it would be counter-productive to impose a ‘one size fits all’ system of justice on youngsters.
They want police forces to retain their power to take local and family circumstances into account when determining how many warnings are issued before formal proceedings begin.
Despite the concern, First Minister Jack McConnell is determined to deliver his election pledge to put youth crime at the top of the political agenda.
He is expected to announce plans this week to consult on a national system of police warnings for young offenders.
He is also committed to electronically tagging some young offenders and, as revealed by Scotland on Sunday, punishing parents who fail to curb their children’s anti-social behaviour, even if that ultimately means sending them to jail.
McConnell will set out details of his plans when he addresses MSPs on Wednesday.
But critics say his decision to adopt a national system of warnings for young offenders could prove one of his most controversial.
Cautions are frequently issued by senior police officers to young offenders caught drinking under age or vandalising school property, but their use varies widely across the country. Family circumstances can mean some parents are warned many times before tougher action is taken.
But a recent report by the public spending watchdog Audit Scotland, which backs the Executive’s plan, suggested warnings were much more common in Lothian and Borders and Strathclyde than in Tayside, Grampian and Central.
Ministers want young criminals to be treated consistently across the country and are studying the hardline final warning system that was adopted by the Home Office for England in 1998.
Under the English scheme, which replaces cautions for young offenders, the warning is accompanied by intervention to reduce the likelihood of reoffending.
This can include restorative justice programmes where the offender is brought together face-to-face with the victim to apologise or to try to make good the damage caused, for example, to a vandalised car.
Each offence committed by a young offender is met with a progressive response designed to prevent any further offending. A warning would apply to first-time minor offences, including breach of the peace, and reoffending would be expected to result in a final warning.
Apart from exceptional circumstances, any further offending after a final warning has been issued would result in a charge or referral to the children’s hearings system.
Ministers in Scotland are equally keen to link the national system of warnings with restorative justice.
After their first warning, offenders would typically be required to repair the damage done when windows were broken, walls sprayed with graffiti or homes vandalised. Ministers believe young criminals are less likely to reoffend if forced to confront the consequences of their actions.
While such crimes are often dismissed as ‘petty’, ministers believe it is vital they are dealt with to improve the quality of life in Scotland’s towns and cities.
A Scottish Executive spokeswoman described the current system of police warnings across Scotland as "ad hoc", adding: "We are looking to provide national guidance to ensure there is a common, nationwide approach.
"We are looking at expertise wherever it comes from, including a number of English forces, and learning from them about the best examples."
A Scottish Liberal Democrat spokesman added: "It is very fair for people to expect to know how they are going to be treated by the law at all levels, and therefore standardisation makes common sense."
But opposition politicians poured scorn on the ideas. Michael Matheson, the SNP’s shadow deputy health minister, said: "This is being done more for political reasons than pragmatic reasons to tackle youth disorder, and is just the latest illustration of the piecemeal fashion in which the Executive is dealing with the problem."
The Scottish Police Federation, which represents rank and file officers, is concerned that the proposals could be an added drain on police resources but a spokesman said it would reserve judgement until examining the fine detail.
THE RISE OF THE 'SUPER OFFENDER'
A SMALL hard-core of tearaway teenagers, or so-called ‘super offenders’, are responsible for most youth crimes committed across Scotland and for about a third of all offences.
The rise of the super offender is underlined by the growing number of teenagers who have been reported 10 times or more to the Children’s Panel.
Figures released by the Scottish Children’s Reporter show that between 1998 and 1999, 741 teenagers were reported 10 or more times to children’s hearings. Just a year later, that figure had risen by a fifth to 890.
Cases include a 13-year-old who committed more than 50 crimes in Edinburgh, including car theft, vandalism and assault, but was freed to continue offending because there was no secure accommodation to house him.
A gang of eight teenagers, who preyed on the vulnerable in a 13-month campaign of terror in Moray, was recently sentenced to between five months and five years.