A pilot court project in Aberdeen that sees sheriffs identify support to help people with chaotic lifestyles change their offending behaviour was hailed by Justice Secretary Michael Matheson on a visit yesterday.

Mr Matheson attended a sitting of the Problem Solving Court, in which sheriffs are directly involved in identifying support for the chronic issues or chaotic lifestyles of certain offenders, as part of the sentencing process. This can include help with housing, or access to drug and alcohol treatment services.

The trial has been running in Aberdeen Sheriff Court since November 2015. Dealing only with women with a history of persistent low-level offending at first, the specialist court process was extended to men aged 16-25 with a similar pattern of offending in August this year.

The Problem Solving Court delivers community sentences, known as structured deferred sentences, which are tailored to influence an individual’s behaviour and hold them accountable. Progress is regularly monitored by the same sheriff, usually through face-to-face review hearings, allowing for a relationship to develop and consistency to be maintained.

Since it started, more than 20 women and five men have been supported to change their behaviour, gaining structure and stability in their lives and in turn decreasing their risk of reoffending.

The scheme will be reviewed in 2017 before any decisions are made in relation to the future of the trial.

Praising the sheriffs, Crown and court staff who had dedicated their time to putting the "pioneering" project into action, Mr Matheson said: “This is about recognising that by addressing the serious underlying issues facing some of those who commit crime, we can change behaviour and reduce the chance they will reoffend. Uniquely, this approach makes a direct link between the court and the right services, like housing, substance misuse support and healthcare.

“We have already had very encouraging feedback from local services, demonstrating it is helping address the causes of offending. While we may only be dealing with small numbers so far, this is a trial to test whether that works for Scotland’s justice system more broadly."

He added: “The Problem Solving Court is one part of our wider effort to reduce reoffending and prevent future damage to families and communities by providing support to help people rehabilitate.

“Evidence shows that community sentences are far more effective than short term prison sentences in reducing reoffending. Reconviction rates in Scotland have reached a 17 year low, which shows we are heading in the right direction, supported by projects like this.