Scottish courts urged not to jail 'immature' under-25s

Media caption,
'I learnt more about how to commit crime from prison'

Fewer people under the age of 25 should be jailed because their brains are not fully mature, new draft guidelines say.

Prison could still be used for young people but only when no other sentence is appropriate, they say.

The guidelines from the Scottish Sentencing Council say a young person's maturity should be taken into account when assessing the extent to which they can be blamed.

It has launched a 12-week public consultation.

The guideline follows research saying imbalances in brain development explain risk-taking and emotionally driven behaviour which can lead to illegal activity.

It says young people have a greater capacity for change and more emphasis should be placed on rehabilitation. It also calls for more cases to be referred to the children's hearing system for advice.

Factors that affect young people, such as being in care, trauma or bereavement, should be taken into account when deciding on a sentence, they say.

Sheriffs and judges would still be able to use the full range of sentencing options but the guidelines makes it clear that prison or detention should only be used on under-25s when no other sentence is appropriate.

This is a pretty big deal. The Scottish Sentencing Council guidelines apply to all the courts in Scotland and in this instance will influence how up to 17,000 young people are sentenced each year.

There's likely to be some arguing that 25 is too old as a cut off but the University of Edinburgh research suggests our brains don't fully mature until we are between 25 and 30. So, others might argue it should be higher still.

Using 25 as a threshold would bring Scotland in line with Switzerland. In the Netherlands the age threshold is 23. In Germany it is 21. But people will get their say. There will now be a 12-week public consultation on the guidelines.

'I learnt more about how to commit crime from prison'

Image caption,
Janine says she needed help for mental health problems and drug addiction

Janine O'Neill was sent to prison aged 24 for a number of offences including shoplifting.

The 34-year-old says it set in train a pattern which has seen her sent to prison almost every year since.

"I learnt more about how to commit crime from prison," she told the BBC. "And I lost my house, lost my family, lost my daughter. As soon as that door closes you're just a number."

Janine says young people should not be sent to prison - especially those with mental health problems.

"I remember looking down and thinking 'my god, am I in prison? these people should be in hospital'. It is heart-breaking actually."

Janine refers to herself as an "addict". She's got depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

She says what she needed and needs is mental health support and drugs rehab not jail.

"Why send young girls to prison? You're in for petty crime but you're in with serious criminals doing 22 years. You're learning nothing good from prison."

Before prison she was given a number of community orders. But she says they didn't help to change her behaviour and that she failed on them because she kept failing to keep appointments.

"I need help," she says. "Professional help."

Life experiences

Image caption,
Lord Turnbull has urged the public to take part in the consultation on the guidelines

Lord Turnbull, senator member of the Scottish Sentencing Council, said young people should be treated differently to adults in sentencing because they were different.

"Generally speaking a young person's cognitive function will be less developed than an adult person and their life experiences will be different," he said.

"These are factors which will be required to be taken into account of in sentencing culpability or blameworthiness."

About 17,000 young people are sentenced each year and it is estimated more than 2,000 are jailed.

The latest figures show about 750 males and 60 females under 21 are given custodial sentences each year as well as about 4,000 men and 300 women between the ages of 21 and 30.

The Scottish Sentencing Council's research into cognitive maturity was carried out by the University of Edinburgh, which found that the brain continues to develop well into adulthood and does not reach maturity until about 25 to 30.

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