Well, not if you’re under 25 according to recent proposals published by the Scottish Sentencing Council as part of a public consultation process. The main function of the Scottish Sentencing Council is to demystify sentencing decisions and, therefore, educate the public about these matters.
The current proposal might seem very provocative and is bound to divide public opinion. Crime, after all, is a very emotive issue and everyone has an opinion about it whether you have been the victim or the criminal. The purpose of criminal law is about the State punishing those individuals who have broken the rules of the community by engaging in dangerous and/or anti-social activities.
The rationale for the Scottish Sentencing Council’s proposal is that scientific research (carried out by the University of Edinburgh) seems to show that the brains of people aged under 25 years have not fully developed i.e. matured.
Now, it is by no means certain that such a proposal will be implemented and the Scottish Sentencing Council is urging members of the public to respond to its consultation with their opinions on the matter.
It is certainly part of a wider strategy which fits in with attempts by the Scottish Government to reduce the numbers of people who are sent to prison each year. There is now perhaps a recognition that prison doesn’t always work. There has been a presumption operating for several years in Scotland, that people will not be sent to prison if the offence would normally be punished by a sentence of less than 6 months. Obviously, this presumption would be ignored if, for example, the offender was a person who persistently broke the rules.
Over the last year, this Blog has looked at a number of initiatives which have taken place which have been about taking different approaches to crime prevention or the rehabilitation of offenders.
In the Autumn (or Fall), I spoke to a group of students about an initiative called the “Call-In-Scheme” where Avon and Somerset Police in England were targeting first offenders aged between 16 and 21 who have been caught dealing drugs. The choice: go to court, be convicted with all the consequences this outcome will entail or go straight. Participants in the scheme were be selected by a panel. Predictably, such an approach sharply divided my audience.
Crime and kindness?
Last March, two American judges – Victoria Pratt and Ginger Lerner-Wren we’re invited to Scotland by Community Justice Scotland, a publicly funded body, where they were hoping to meet hundreds of people who deal with the Scottish criminal justice system.
The two judges were keen to emphasise that there should be more compassion in the criminal justice system when dealing with offenders. They pointed to impressive results in the United States – a New York court alone has seen a dramatic decrease of 20% in youth crime and a 10% reduction in crime overall by using radical methods to deal with offenders. One of the judges, Ginger Lerner-Wren established one of the first mental health courts anywhere in the world. The aim of this court (based in Florida) was to promote treatment of offenders as an alternative to traditional forms of punishment. Judge Pratt, on the other hand, specialises in “procedural justice” which works on the basis “that if people before the courts perceive they are being treated fairly and with dignity and respect, they’ll come to respect the courts, complete their sentences and be more likely to obey the law.”
The Glasgow Alcohol Court
This type of approach has already being piloted in Scotland: Sheriffs in Glasgow deal with cases where alcohol is a ‘contributory factor’ in crime. The Sheriff Alcohol Court has been operating since 2018 and its lifespan was extended in 2019. It now deals with domestic abuse cases involving alcohol. Punishments other than prison sentences are handed out by this court e.g. drug and alcohol treatment orders and community service orders. This approach recognises that criminals can turn their lives around and can become law abiding members of society. Being given a drug treatment order is not an easy option. Participants in schemes such as these are regularly tested and monitored. Break the rules and you will go to jail.
Age of criminal responsibility
In Scotland, in common with many penal systems around the world, we do use a person’s age to determine criminal responsibility. Currently, the age of criminal responsibility is 12 and there is a debate about whether this should be raised even higher. It is worth remembering that, for many years (until 2019 in fact), Scotland had one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility anywhere in the Western World i.e. 8 years of age.
Somewhat mitigating this feature of Scottish criminal law was the fact that children were not tried in adult courts. The Children’s Hearing or Panel system was primarily set up for this very purpose. It was considered a revolutionary approach because it recognised that by stigmatising (and criminalising) children at a very early age, society could set them on a path from which there was no means of redemption. If you effectively abandoned a child at an early age, you were condemning them to a very grim future where they could (potentially) be in and out of prison for the rest of their lives.
The Scottish Sentencing Council’s proposal is very interesting and it will certainly form part of a lively discussion on how we continue to deal with crime in this country. The public now has 12 weeks to get involved in the consultation by giving their opinions on the matter.
It is important to appreciate that, under the proposals, judges will still be able to send people under 25 to prison if they think this is an appropriate punishment. What the proposals are allowing judges to do is to look more closely at a young person’s background e.g. mental health issues before sentence is passed. It remains the case that, where certain crimes are concerned, the imposition of a prison sentence will be most the appropriate action to take because the issue of public safety will be paramount. Clearly, someone like the notorious child killer Aaron Campbell, will not benefit from the proposals merely because they are under the age of 25.
A link to an article on the BBC News app about theScottish Sentencing Council’s proposal can be found below:
Draft sentencing guidelines say younger offenders should be treated differently because their brains are still developing.
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Copyright Seán J Crossan, 28 February 2020