Plenary Session 2: Lesley McAra – In the best interests of the child? Scottish youth justice in comparative context

Dr. McAra opened by outlining the Scottish model of justice based on the Kilbrandon philosophy. Under this model, offending is seen as a symptom of deeper-seated needs, and it is acknowledged that decisions ought to be made in the best interests of the child and that the experience of the criminal justice system ought to be as de-stigmatising as possible. McAra highlighted the strong association between offending and vulnerability and noted that violent offenders in particular are most vulnerable as they have high levels of self harm and para-suicide.

McAra then went on to point out that the Kilbrandon model has been under pressure since devolution. There has in fact been a convergence of policy with New Labour in England. Many of the changes in the English system have also been adopted north of the border; a process that McAra refers to as ‘de-tartinization’. She then went on to acknowledge the tension that now exists in Scotland in terms of youth justice policies. There are two opposing camps, one of which favours the punitive approach and the other of which remains committed to the Kilbrandon system. McAra however believes that the punitive voice is shouting loudest and that the Kilbrandon approach has been undermined by both the police and the Reporter.

Certain categories of young people are recycled in the system and stigmatized. According to McAra, there is a labelling process going on whereby these young people are consistently charged with offences whereas other equally serious and vulnerable offenders escape tutelage of agencies altogether. McAra gives the interesting statistic that at age 15, 72% of self-reported violent offenders remain ‘unknown’ to social work or the children’s hearing system. McAra highlighted that the findings in the Edinburgh survey mirror those in international comparative research, namely the Denver/Bremen longitudinal studies. The further you take a young person into the system the more damaging it is for the young person. The most vulnerable children are propelled into the adult system. McAra then moved on to suggest that early behavioural problems are not generally a good indicator of later offending.

McAra concluded by suggesting some lessons that need to be learned from the Scottish experience: it is crucial to protect our most damaged young people, in particular those who are hidden offenders; there needs to be maximum diversion and minimum intervention; and there should be early intervention to problem areas rather than just problem families.

Summary provided by LL.M (Criminal Justice) candidate, John Cronin