Key messages from the Centre for Youth & Criminal Justice

Date: 13th December 2016
Category: Children in conflict with the law
Author: Children and Young People's Centre for Justice

This briefing paper summarises key findings and messages from CYCJ's work over the past three years. It draws on research; feedback from practice and policy; and reflections about how to better support children and young people involved in, or on the edges of, offending to flourish.


1. Low level offending is a common feature of childhood as children grow and test boundaries, but for a small percentage of children the frequency and severity of their offending causes a major concern. The number of reported offences committed by children and young people has reduced dramatically during the last five years and the number of young people in secure care and custody has fallen in parallel.

2. There is a growing body of evidence which shows that children involved in a pattern of offending, or who are involved in more serious offences, are almost always our most vulnerable, victimised and traumatised young people. The link between vulnerability and offending is retrospective not predictive, in that most children who experience adverse childhood experiences and trauma do not go on to seriously offend, but children who are involved in serious offending or frequent offending almost always have experienced trauma.

3. Contact with the youth justice system is ironically the biggest factor in whether someone will continue offending. Wherever possible the best course of action is to NOT intervene as a 'justice' service, but to provide support via universal services (health, education, welfare) and focus on building relationships, strengths, skills, opportunities and hope. The more we can do to keep children in school (especially children whose behaviour is challenging) the better.

4. Mental health is a major issue for this group of children but we often respond to mental health crises rather than looking to help children manage their experiences and emotions (self-regulation) at an early stage. One initiative which would address this would be for clinical psychologists to be embedded in social work teams throughout Scotland to provide this early stage support.

5. Children aged 12 to 18 are still routinely prosecuted in adult courts, where children are unable to understand the language and processes, the risk of re-traumatising is high and their needs are not taken into account. The CYCJ suggest that for all under 18 year olds the presumption should be that they will be dealt with through the Children's Hearing System.

6. The CYCJ have seen significant successes through the introduction of the Whole System Approach and they suggest extending the approach to at least young people up to the age of 21, as they do not fully develop until their mid-20s and thus require specific support to address risk and needs.

7. There would be value in examining the legislation and policy surrounding Movement and Restriction Conditions (MRCs) and to be more creative in how we apply such measures. There are possibilities including using MRCs as an alternative to a custodial sentence or remand, or using a MRC as part of 'step up' or 'step down' from secure care.