What should we expect of young people at different ages? At what stage sould they be given various rights, and, conversely, when should they be held fully accountable for their actions?
Such questions have arisen in recent times over issues as diverse as the right to vote, to buy tobacco, to determine their gender; and on the flip side, the minimum age for prosecution, and what special considerations should apply to the sentencing of offenders.
The latest big splash in the pool has been caused by the Scottish Sentencing Council’s proposed sentencing guideline. It reasons that since, even up to age 25, the human brain is not fully developed and people are more liable to act rashly but at the same time have greater rehabilitation potential, when offenders below that age come before the courts there should be a particular emphasis on disposals aimed at correcting their behaviour for the future, with custody only where there is no alternative.
Predictably, there has been a spectrum of reactions, from welcoming enlightened proposals to condemning “barmy” soft touch justice. Perhaps the more challenging question to answer is, how can we on the one hand assert that young people deserve to be given the rights of adults, while on the other maintain that they need special treatment due to immaturity?
As respects sentencing, it can be asked whether the Council’s guideline would change much in practice. Legislation has been in place for many years, for all offenders, that a first custodial sentence should not be imposed unless the court considers no other disposal appropriate. And while it points up particular characteristics of young people, the paper could be seen as an extension of the wider debate about the most socially desirable measures, other aspects of which include recognising, and attempting to counter, the effects of childhood traumas, and making special allowances for mothers with young children. Equally, the paper is explicit that the full range of options remains open, and there are undoubtedly cases where public protection requires a lengthy custodial term.
The Council paved the way for its consultation by releasing in advance the research on which it is based, and doubtless intends its proposed guideline to have some effect on the way cases are dealt with. What the resulting debate will ultimately highlight, it can be hoped, is the need to look properly at the individual offender and their characteristics, and to ensure the resources are available both for sufficient assessments and for the measures to counter reoffending that the Council anticipates being deployed. Reducing the need for prison beds does not just mean a saving for the Government.