Go to jail?

Photo by 🇨🇭 Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash

Young offenders?

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.

https://consultations.scottishsentencingcouncil.org.uk/ssc/young-people/

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.

Conclusion

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.

Scottish courts urged not to jail ‘immature’ under-25s

Related Blog Articles:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/05/08/the-age-of-criminal-responsibility/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/27/criminal-responsibility/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/03/12/crime-and-kindness/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/19/dealing-with-alcohol-abuse/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/08/30/once-a-criminal/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/03/04/commit-the-crime-do-the-time/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/04/02/victims-voices/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/06/13/doing-time/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/03/22/life-should-mean-life/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2017/04/04/scottish-criminal-appeals/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/01/29/crime-and-punishment-in-scotland/

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 28 February 2020

From 8 to 12

Photo by Michael Skok on Unsplash

Blink and you might have missed it.

Missed what?

From today (29 November 2019), the age of criminal responsibility in Scotland rises from 8 to 12. This Act of the Scottish Parliament was only passed in May.

Before introducing the original Bill, the Scottish Government had previously carried out a public consultation about raising the age of criminal responsibility. This exercise opened on 18 March 2016 and closed on 17 June 2016.

The Scottish Government heralded the results of the consultation exercise as demonstrating overwhelming support for its proposal (95% of respondents agreed), but only 74 responses were received in total.

True, important organisations which are involved in the criminal justice system (such as Police Scotland, the Faculty of Advocates and the Law Society of Scotland) did respond, but many local authorities did not.

Links to a press release from the Scottish Government about the consultation and the report which resulted from it can be found below:

https://consult.gov.scot/youth-justice/minimum-age-of-criminal-responsibility/

https://www2.gov.scot/Resource/0051/00510795.pdf

Historically, Scotland had one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility in the Western World. The Act now means that Scotland falls more into line with other countries.

Not everyone thinks the Act goes far enough: Bruce Adamson, the Scottish Children’s Commissioner had argued that the reform should go further and that the age of responsibility for criminal behaviour should be raised to 14. Mr Adamson argued that this would bring Scotland into line with the international standard.

https://www.scottishlegal.com/article/children-s-commissioner-argues-12-is-not-an-acceptable-age-of-criminal-responsibility

Interestingly, this reform means that England and Wales and Northern Ireland now have a lower criminal age of responsibility (10) than Scotland.

Examining the bigger picture, the number of children aged 8-11 who have been referred to the Children’s Reporter for committing an offence in Scotland has fallen dramatically from a high of about 800 (2010/11) to about 200 (2016/2017) as the Scottish Government’s own figures demonstrate (see below).

A link to the new Act of Parliament can be found below:

https://www.legislation.gov.uk/asp/2019/7/contents

It is also worth emphasising that the scope of the new Act goes further than merely raising the age of criminal responsibility – as the preamble to the original Bill makes clear:

[A] Bill for an Act of the Scottish Parliament to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 12 years and to make consequential changes to the law on the disclosure of criminal records and on disclosure of information about individuals working or seeking to work with children or certain adults; on the provision of information by the Principal Reporter to persons adversely affected by the behaviour of children; on the taking of certain children to a place of safety by the police; on the search of certain children by the police; on police interviews with certain children; and on the taking of forensic samples from certain children by the police; and for connected purposes.”

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 29 November 2019

The Age of Criminal Responsibility

Photo by Nicole Honeywill on Unsplash

In a previous blog (Criminal Responsibility published on 27 February 2019), I commented on the Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Bill which was then proceeding through the Scottish Parliament. At the time of writing my previous blog, this Bill had completed Stage 2 of the legislative process.

The purpose of the Bill was to raise the age in Scotland when people become responsible for acts or omissions which are deemed to be criminal in nature. Scotland had one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility in Europe (and the rest of the world). The aim of the Bill was to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 8 years to 12.

The Bill was passed by the Scottish Parliament on 7 May 2019 (completing Stage 3 of the legislative process) and will soon become the Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Act 2019. So, the age of criminal responsibility is now going to be set at 12 years of age in Scotland.

A link to the Bill as passed by the Scottish Parliament can be found below:

https://www.parliament.scot/S5_Bills/Age%20of%20Criminal%20Responsibility%20(Scotland)%20Bill/SPBill29BS052019.pdf

The Scottish Government has stated that it will review the age of criminal responsibility in 3 years time, with a possible view to raising it.

In evidence given to Equalities and Human Rights Committee of the Scottish Parliament during the passage of the Bill, it was pointed out that the United Nations had been critical of Scotland’s longstanding position on the age of criminal responsibility and had demanded that it should be raised.

Obviously, children can commit dreadful acts – which if committed by an adult would normally be dealt with by the criminal justice system in Scotland. Murders and other awful offences have been committed by children and such situations will still have to be addressed. We only have to think about the murder of the toddler, James Bolger in 1993 in England. The Scottish Government will argue that the new Act has measures in place to deal with such situations. It will be interesting to see how the law develops in this area.

A link to an article on the BBC website which covered the passing of the Act can be found below:

Age of criminal responsibility raised from eight to 12

MSPs unanimously back law which means primary school-aged children will no longer be arrested.

Postscript

Readers can look at a short video on the BBC News website where the Chairman of Scouts Scotland argues that it is not useful in the longer term to stigmatise some children by describing them as criminals:

Scouts chairman: Labelling children criminal ‘impacts life’

Labelling a child a criminals can “impact the rest of their life”, says Scouts Scotland Chair Moray MacDonald.

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 8 and 13 May 2019

Criminal responsibility

Photo by Lionello DelPiccolo on Unsplash

For many years, Scotland has had one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility in the developed world i.e. a child must reach the age of 8 before they could be found guilty of a criminal offence. Although criminal responsibility begins at the age of 8, a child cannot be prosecuted until s/he reaches the age of 12.

Kenny McAskill the former MSP and Scottish Justice Secretary announced proposals (contained in the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Bill) in March 2009 to increase the age of criminal responsibility to 12 in order to bring Scots criminal law into line with most of Europe.  Elish Angiolini QC, a former Lord Advocate, had supported this reform as she had previously criticised the current age of criminal responsibility as too low. That said, the eventual Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010 did not raise the age of criminal responsibility from 8 to 12. The 2010 Act reaffirmed the fact that criminal responsibility begins at the age of 8, but children should not be prosecuted until they were 12 years of age. In England and Wales, by comparison, the age of criminal responsibility continues to be set at 10.

The Scottish Government has now reviewed the age of criminal responsibility and changes will shortly be introduced.

The reason for this is the Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Bill currently making its way through the Scottish Parliament. This Bill was originally introduced to the Scottish Parliament on 18 March 2018 and has now passed Stage 2 as recently as 19 February 2019.

Barring any problems, the Bill should proceed to Stage 3 and then become law. When the eventual Act is passed, criminal responsibility in Scotland will be set at 12.

Watch this space.

Progress of the Bill can be tracked on the Scottish Parliament’s website:

https://www.parliament.scot/parliamentarybusiness/Bills/107986.aspx

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 27 February 2019