THE SCOTTISH Executive has turned the spotlight on young offenders as the latest group in need of social inclusion.
Ministers regard their decision to hold a series of Cabinet meetings on youth crime as amply justified by a research study, released last week, which found that a half of third and fourth year pupils had committed offenses - rising to 85 per cent of boys.
Although the sample was confined to six secondary schools in only two Scottish towns, Peter Peacock, Deputy Minister for Children and Education, immediately announced a review group led by the Scottish Executive. The group will include representatives of local authorities, children's hearings and voluntary organisations. A consultation letter is to be issued shortly.
The researchers from Stirling University's social work research centre carried out a survey of 1274 pupils in S3 and S4 between 1996 and 1999. They held follow-up interviews with 276 young people in three different age groups (14-15, 18-19 and 22-25). They also talked to teachers, the police and social workers.
Their report, Understanding Offending Among Young People, said the offenses committed by the third and fourth year pupils "were generally not very serious". But the influence of drink and drugs is very clear. Persistent offenders in all age groups are most likely to have taken drugs, and almost four-fifths of 14-15 year olds admitted consuming alcohol. Young people are also at risk of offending if they come from families with a history of committing offenses.
"This study does not make for pleasant reading," Mr Peacock said. Teachers should "sit up and take note". But he acknowledged there was no simple answer.
The researchers also concluded that "the phenomenon of youth crime is complex, varied and defies simplistic solutions. Offending by young people was usually a transitory phenomenon which derived from a desire to conform to pressures from friends to engage in a range of risk-taking behaviours that signal increasing independence from adult influences. Offending among those in the oldest age group was often associated with social exclusion and the misuse of drugs."
A recent study by the Prince's Trust estimated that 350,000 crimes a year are committed in Scotland by young people aged eight to 20, at an annual cost of pound;730 million.