Locking up vulnerable youths in adult prisons raises “huge questions” and requires a “radical shake-up” of Scotland’s justice system, according to the boss of a children and young person’s think tank.
Claire Lightowler, director of the Children and Young People’s Centre for Justice (CYCJ), said the current legislation around imprisoning under 18s is “a mess” with many locked up and awaiting trial for months.
Figures show that more than 80% of Scotland’s young people who are in prison have yet to be convicted of a crime – while the number in England is less than 30%.
It comes after a vulnerable 17-year old girl was locked up in HMP Grampian overnight for nearly 40 hours without being assessed by health professionals.
Ms Lightowler works to ensure Scotland’s approach to children in conflict with the law is compliant with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
She is calling for all under 18s charged with a crime to be placed in secure care units where they can be monitored and assessed – rather than in adult and youth prisons.
She said there are five secure units around Scotland that are capable of housing suspected youth offenders.
The units, while restricting the liberty of young people, also provide intensive mental health support and help to rehabilitate highly vulnerable young people to rejoin society.
“There is no reason why a 17-year old shouldn’t be in secure care”, Ms Lightowler said.
“I think the issue is less about whether the north-east needs another prison or another young offenders institution, when the question is why is secure care not being used when there are underlying vulnerabilities, and they need the kind of approach and therapies that they have available to them?
She added that the situation for young people has “gotten worse” due to the Covid-19 pandemic as Scottish courts are delayed and stopped in some cases.
Ms Lightowler said: “It means you’ve got children locked up, that haven’t got a trial date and they are potentially going to have to wait months and months before they even have a first court day.
“It’s a mess. This is one of the key problems we have with 16 and 17-year olds across legislation. It’s really confused about when and where they are children.
“Many are in their cell for 22 hours a day, they’re alone and are not allowed to have face-to-face contact due to the pandemic – there’s huge questions about their health and wellbeing.”
The issue was highlighted in the north-east when a vulnerable 17-year old girl from Aberdeen was placed in HMP Grampian despite it having no young offenders unit.
Her lawyer, Stuart Murray, described her treatment by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) as “disgraceful”.
He said: “The Crown Office wanted to continue without plea for an assessment to be carried out, but they didn’t evaluate her, they just put her in an adult prison and a doctor didn’t arrive until 12pm the following day to assess her – it’s horrific.
“They just can’t socially engineer these things and the reality is that she has not been dealt with properly in custody over the last 48 hours.”
A spokesman for COPFS said it was “committed to working with partners to provide the necessary support to those who come into contact with the criminal justice system”.
He added: “We endeavour to prioritise cases involving the most vulnerable, including young people, and ensure they are treated with professionalism and sensitivity throughout the prosecution process.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said decisions on whether to remand an individual in custody are “for the independent courts in each case” and that Holyrood “cannot comment on individual cases”.
He added: “Scotland has seen dramatic changes in the youth justice sector since this government made a decisive shift towards prevention in 2007. This includes a major reduction in the number of young people in custody
“Although the ratio of young people on remand in Polmont looks high, there has been an around 90% reduction in the actual number of under 18s in custody since 2006. For under 18s who are remanded, this can either be to a secure unit, where that young person is legally defined as a child, or to HMP and YOI Polmont.
“The Cabinet Secretary for Justice intends on raising this issue with both the Lord Advocate and Lord President.”