Next month sees the start of a radical early intervention programme in central Scotland, designed to prevent children as young as eight from developing patterns of offending in their adolescent and adult years.
Funded by the Scottish Office until 2002 under the Invest to Save Scheme, the initiative is to be developed on the back of the Freagarrach Youth Justice Project. This is a multi-agency scheme run by Barnardo's Scotland with its partners in the Young Offenders Strategy Group - Falkirk, Clackmannanshire and Stirling councils, Central Scotland Police and the Reporters' service.
Freagarrach works with persistent offenders aged 12 to 16, but the latest initiative will target those as young as eight years old deemed "at risk" - defined by Barnardo's assistant director of children's services, Carol Douglas, as "already getting into offending".
Paradoxically, it is the difficulties Freagarrach has encountered, just as much as its successes, that have led to the new pilot.
According to Central Scotland Police statistics from 1993-94, a hard core of young offenders, just 1.6 per cent of the total, were responsible for 20 per cent of all juvenile crime. Freagarrach was set up in 1995 to tackle this group. Since then, around 90 youngsters have attended the project, which aims to keep them at home with their families or carers. It works with at least 10 persistent offenders at each of its two centres, in Polmont and Alloa, at any given time. Last year's annual report claimed "an overall reduction of 62 per cent in the rate of offending by young people at the project".
Freagarrach's five-point strategy aims to:
* Challenge offending behaviour;
* Highlight victim awareness and the need to make reparations;
* Help young people back into education andor prepare them for employment;
* Work with family and carers;
* Promote constructive use of leisure time.
But while the project claims success with older teenagers, it has been less effective with children under 14.
Project leader Dot Mackie explains: "Early on we discovered problems engaging with 12 and 13-year-olds. They didn't have the maturity to handle the cognitive behavioural approach and they became dependent on the project and on individual staff members. This made it difficult for them to withdraw when their offending behaviour improved and they had to move on. A few re-offended and ended up back on the programme."
The cognitive behavioural approach involves an initial appraisal of the five-point strategy with the young offender and the drawing up of a contract tailored to his needs - "and it is usually a him", says Ms Mackie. The young person then signs the contract along with his key worker, parents or carers, police and social worker. "This formalises the contract and gives the young offender a sense of ownership.
"We encourage the young people to identify the issues or difficulties themselves. They will have at least a crude idea of why they are offending. The next step is to explore the offending behaviour in depth, usually starting with the most recent offence. We get them to 'cartoon' the offence - draw the story. Then we can go back to look at the 'stop points', when they could have prevented their actions going further.
"This is the basis of the approach we use to develop the skills to recognise and make the right choices - to take responsibility," she says.
If this approach is too advanced for the younger age groups, so too is the "peer education" strategy Freagarrach adopts, which introduces offenders over 15 to inmates from Glenochil Young Offenders Institute, so they can confront the realities of prison life, the social stigma of conviction and its effect on such things as future job prospects.
More pertinent to the younger age group, says Dot Mackie, is a focus on family and carers. The new project will work with parent support groups, concentrating on parenting skills and ways of dealing with the young person, to reset boundaries of behaviour while addressing the child's needs.
"It's about building bridges between the young person, family and education, police, social work and the Reporter," says Ms Mackie. "Many of the parents feel isolated and blamed, and many of them are desperate by the time their child is referred to us."
It is to counter this desperation and start to build those bridges earlier that the new initiative is being embraced.
Carol Douglas of Barnardo's Scotland says: "We recognise that the Freagarrach approach works less well for those under 14 because of cognitive development factors. The new initiative will allow us to work more intensely with parents, using family group conferences, for example, so they can identify the help they need to support the young person as best they can - and the young person will have a say in that.
"It's really about strengthening the protective factors, equipping everyone, from schools and social workers to the families themselves, to deal with problems more effectively.
"We have to help the young person get as much as possible out of the mainstream school system and try and keep them in it."
So far, so theoretical. But Ms Douglas admits that one problem likely to be thrown up by "early intervention rather than waiting" will be that of "labelling", as those targeted by the initiative will not yet be persistent offenders.
"Yes, we will have to be extremely sensitive because we don't want to label anyone. We're not looking for persistent offenders in the eight-to-11 age range, but maybe for a young person with one or two offences which, alongside other factors, suggest the beginnings of a developing pattern of offending behaviour," she says.
Other relevant factors could include difficulties at school, truancy or exclusion, dysfunctional family background, previous sibling offences or the young person being at risk of being placed in residential accommodation.
Not all adolescent offenders develop a pattern of offending at an earlier age. "Some just go on a blitz at 14 or 15," as Carol Douglas puts it. But she points to recent research by David Farrington, professor of psychological criminology at Cambridge University, which indicates that "young people who become involved in crime at the earliest stages - before they are 14 - tend to become the most persistent offenders, with longer criminal careers."
That said, it does seem that the successful Freagarrach project and the new initiative are, from the individual, societal and financial points of view, sound investments.
* 'I know I shouldn't have done it. I've looked at it from the victims' point of view'
George (pictured above with his mother) was referred to Freagarrach last May when he was still 14. Over a four-month period his rate of offending had gone "sky high" and he admitted to 47 charges, most related to car theft.
With a history of school exclusions and truanting, George (not his real name) started offending by breaking into cars "to steal things for the money".
With his parents separated, he ran away from his mother's to stay with his father, who did not make him go to school. At the height of his offending - and he thought he'd "never be caught" - he ran away to live "with a pal and his dad".
Since attending Freagarrach in August, with the exception of two minor offences unrelated to car theft last autumn, George has stopped offending. There have been no offences since December 1998.
Why? "Because I'm getting a lot of support, because I feel bad and I shouldn't have done it. I've looked at it from the victims' point of view. I wouldn't even look in a car now." His improved behaviour has ensured George can attend a day unit five days a week ("a lot stricter than mainstream, but I get on better with the teachers with smaller classes and more help and support").
George is being presented for four Standard grades and will leave school when he is 16 at the end of May. He hopes Freagarrach will help find him a job or get him into college to do engineering.
His mother comments: "If it wasn't for the project he'd still be offending. Freagarrach made him realise he was doing wrong and hurting people. He's stopped being verbally abusive and running away. He even comes in long before his time at night."