Restorative justice is one of two social learning schemes launched in the past year by Barnardo's Scotland to help wayward teenagers in Aberdeenshire. Judy Mackie reports
Peter and his two mates were fed up. They didn't have any money. They didn't have anything to do. Hanging around their usual haunt, a back lane in Peterhead, they spotted a store of alcohol in a garden shed. They broke in and stole it, thinking they'd easily get away with it.
The police caught up with them and the incident concluded with a referral from the Reporter to the Children's Panel to the Barnardo's Scotland Pey Back initiative.
"We were just mucking about," was 15-year-old Peter's explanation of his actions at the time.
Six weeks later, having completed the 10-session Pey Back (Doric spelling) programme based on restorative practices tried in New Zealand and backed by the Scottish Executive, he has greater insight into the significance and consequences of his crime.
"It was a really stupid thing to do. I hadn't thought about there being victims, but I think I know now how they must have felt.
"We also wasted police time when they could have been tackling more serious crimes."
The three boys also learned how their actions could have serious implications for their future in terms of getting a job and being able to buy the types of cars, clothes and equipment they would like.
With the support of a dedicated Barnardo's Scotland Pey Back project worker they completed a series of worksheets devised around the principles of victim awareness and restorative justice and looked at the consquences of their crimes, how they affected police and the local community.
For Peter, one of the most effective strategies was writing to apologise to the victims. He was astonished to get a kindly letter back saying they just wished the boys had asked, rather than stealing.
Eric Watson, the deputy services manager with Barnardo's Scotland, says:
"All the young people going through the Pey Back programme are asked to write a letter to those they have offended against and many of them have received a positive reply."
Peter drew the line at meeting his victims. "They asked us to meet them, but I couldn't handle that; it would have been too much." For him, it is enough that they know he has seen the error of his ways. He no longer sees his two former friends.
Peter's advice to other youths now is simple: "Don't offend."
The Pey Back initiative was launched in the north east in late January and has so far had 60 referrals of 12- to 18-year-olds from across Aberdeenshire. Two Barnardo's Scotland workers travel around the region visiting individuals or groups in their home, community venues or at school. They aim to help those who have committed between one and four offences; persistent offenders are not accepted.
Although it is too early to gauge Pey Back's success - the bottom line is whether the participants reoffend - weekly feedback from the programme workers and the young people suggests it is on the right tracks. What has surprised Mr Watson is the almost 100 per cent attendance at the sessions.
Setting up the programme was not without its issues. "Not every victim of a crime wants to hear from, let alone meet, the perpetrator," says Mr Watson.
"As a result, the letters from the young people to their victims are dealt with on an individual basis."
Often, letters will be delivered by the police, who can prepare the recipient in advance. Some may not be delivered at all, but are still seen as useful exercises for young offenders in reaching an understanding of their actions and expressing regret.
Another issue involved health and safety implications of offenders carrying out restorative tasks, such as repairing property they had damaged. "One wanted to clean off graffiti they'd written on a bus shelter, but the chemicals needed to do this were prohibited for use by children under 16, so that idea had to be scrapped," says Mr Watson.
"Most of the young people are very keen to put something back."
The solution, he says, has been to find ways of helping in the community, such as cleaning police cars or coaching youngsters in football.
The one sticking point has been reparations for shoplifting offences. "We approached local stores to see if there was anything the young people could do, but they weren't at all interested," says Mr Watson.
Pey Back has been developed in accordance with the cognitive behavioural principles used in another Barnardo's Scotland programme in Aberdeenshire, the Youth Drug Initiative. Since its launch a year ago, it has seen a success rate of 83 per cent, measured in terms of whether the 12- to 16-year-old participants have abstained from or drastically reduced their use of drugs.
The programme is funded by Lloyds TSB and the Scottish Executive's Children's Change Fund and supported by Aberdeenshire Council and Aberdeenshire Alcohol and Drugs Action Team. It is designed to complement other local agencies' youth drug work, such as NHS Grampian's health promotions activities and Grampian's Police Box programme.
The Youth Drug Initiative focuses on the social impact of taking drugs, over 12 sessions initially. The use of age and ability-appropriate worksheets enables the Barnardo's Scotland workers and youths, individually or in groups, to discuss specific points which will help them think through the consequences of their drug use and resulting behaviour. For those who require further support, there is a 24-session programme and an eight-session relapse programme.
"The idea is that the young people reach their own conclusions, which will hopefully lead to them making informed choices," says Mr Watson. "We play devil's advocate to a great extent, always asking more questions that they need to think through carefully."
They discuss the legalisation of cannabis, future employment and travel prospects for those using drugs and the benefits and negative consequences of taking drugs. Perhaps as a result of thinking things through properly for the first time, the participants' list of consequences always ends up outweighing the list of benefits.
The programme has thrown up useful information about drug-taking among under-16s. The most commonly used drug is alcohol (91 per cent of programme participants use it), followed by tobacco (87 per cent) and cannabis (85 per cent). Next come amphetamines (40 per cent) and solvents (30 per cent).
Very few (15 per cent) will have tried drugs such as heroin or cocaine.
Some under-16s will use a variety of drugs and most have no particular favourite. Programme participants say they spend between 45 minutes (boys) and three hours (girls) choosing what to wear to go out but will take only up to five minutes to decide which drug to take.
Mr Watson says: "As with Pey Back, the Youth Drug Initiative has received a great deal of support from Aberdeenshire's social work and education departments, as well as NHS Grampian and Grampian Police. We're particularly pleased with the response we have had while working in schools. Teachers are very keen to accommodate and participate in our school group work."