Having worked with young offenders for the past decade, a phrase I often say is, "if only."
"If only someone had believed in him," I say as I interview an 18-year-old lad in prison who is on his fifth conviction for serious assault and has never had a positive role model. "If only he had more self-esteem," I think as I hear a 16-year-old boy talk about his involvement in gang culture. "If only someone had intervened earlier and given these children a chance, their situations might have turned out differently."
But in policy terms, the future looks bright. To reduce youth offending, we know we need to be proactive and not reactive. A key priority of the Scottish government's new justice strategy is a "decisive shift towards prevention" of criminal offending, with a focus on inter-agency partnership work and early intervention strategies.
Under the Big Lottery Fund's Realising Ambition programme, 25 projects have been launched, including a highly creative community programme from the Children's Parliament. First, adult workers implement workshops on children's rights in primary schools where students are known to have difficult home lives and may drift into patterns of offending. Second, 12 children are selected for a week-long papier macirc;ch model-making project. Children are chosen for a variety of reasons. They may have low levels of confidence, poor attendance records or challenging relationships. What they all have in common is that they have much greater potential than they are currently realising. I recently visited one of these sessions, where a group from the East End of Glasgow were creating models of themselves in 20 years' time, as well as discussing their goals and developing positive relationships with adults and peers.
During my visit, the children were keen to show me the models and talk about their ambitions: "In 20 years' time I want to be a computer scientist," declared one girl. One young lad articulated his aspirations simply when he said: "I want to be loved and proud of myself."
The adults gave the children positive feedback on their work and contributions. During circle-time sessions, each child was given tailor-made comments that they were invited to read out in front of the group. I saw one boy's face light up as he read out: "Thank you for being a strong, calming influence on the group."
As a result, the children developed confidence and self-esteem that, in many cases, they had never experienced before.
As I drove home, I pictured the children in 20 years' time with renewed hope. Instead of "if only", I found myself saying, "just maybe". Just maybe, we can reduce the number of young people who end up on the other side of the desk from me when I visit Polmont prison.
Ross Deuchar is professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of the West of Scotland. For information about the Children's Parliament go to www.childrensparliament.org.uk