In 1971, Scotland implemented the Children’s Hearings system, a welfare-based approach that encourages youth courts to use early and minimal interventions for youth delinquents (McAra 2006). Scotland developed alternative sanctions for youth offenders to offer rehabilitation instead of punishment and fulfill the mission of the new system. Courts have discretion to issue sanctions such as community service, probation, drug treatment, liberty restrictions, supervised attendance, fines, deferred sentences or discharge (Burman et al. 2006). The most frequently utilized community-based sanctions are probation and community service. These orders have become increasingly strict and many youths face custody if they violate the conditions of their community sentences (Barry 2011).

Politicians have pushed to make the Children’s Hearings system more punitive. The Children’s Hearings system now mandates custody for “persistent” offending youths. The effect has been a considerable increase in custodial sentences for the highest-risk youths that would benefit the most from treatment. Scottish officials also have developed measures to target younger offenders, including electronic monitoring, intensive supervision, and Antisocial Behavior Orders. These “earlier criminalization” measures have been counterintuitive. Rather than rehabilitating youths, they may actually increase the likelihood of a youth’s contact with the legal system later in life (Barry 2010).

Scotland has one of the highest rates of imprisonment in the world and one of the highest youth custody rates in Europe. The reasons for this are the increasingly punitive nature of youth sanctions, shorter sentences that provide minimal rehabilitation, greater use of remand for youth offenders, and early criminalization of youths (Barry 2010). Officials have increased the number of beds in secure youth facilities over the last decade in response to a growing youth custody population. In 2000, there were 86 beds to accommodate youths in secure custody. By 2008 there were 130 beds in seven secure youth facilities (Donovan 2008). The cost of placing youths in secure facilities continues to rise. Between 2006 and 2008, the cost for one youth placement grew more than 10 percent, from £234,000 to £260,000 annually (Donovan 2008).

The punitive shifts in Scottish youth justice have increased the number of youth admissions to secure custody over the last decade. Courts dismiss many cases or issue warnings, but judges use custodial sentences in about seven percent of official sanctions (Junger-Tas 2006). In 2001, youth courts admitted 218 youths to secure custody. Secure custody admissions grew steadily until 2006 when they declined. In 2007-08, youth courts admitted 346 youths to secure custody, a 40 percent increase compared to 2006 admissions (Scottish Government 2008a). These figures do not include the 1,400 youths sent to residential units and residential schools in 2008 (Barry 2010).

The average daily population of youths in Scottish prison has fluctuated in recent years. In 1997-98, there were approximately 800 youths in prison on a given day. The average daily population of youths in prison decreased each year until 2003-04 when it reached approximately 500. It started to increase the following year until there were more than 600 youths in prison in 2008-09 (Scottish Government 2009). The youth custody population continues to grow because of punitive politics and because judges place more youths in custody for shorter periods of time (Barry 2011).

The Scottish Prisons Commission presented a report to the Scottish government with a number of recommendations for reducing imprisonment. Some of the key recommendations include limiting imprisonment only to those who pose a serious threat, shifting to community sanctions for the majority of non-violent and non-repeat offenders, and developing clear and transparent sentencing guidelines.

The Commission recommends that for all offenders who would serve a custodial sentence of six months or less, judges order a Community Supervision Sentence (CSS). The CSS would be available for all non-violent offenders and include a range of restrictions and restorative stipulations (Scottish Government 2008b).

Scottish youth justice is fractured. The Children’s Hearings system was an attempt to promote rehabilitation and community-based sanctions for youth delinquents, but punitive measures have replaced the best interests of the child. Community protection has superseded minimal intervention. Custody has displaced community treatment and supervision. With an increasing rate of youth confinement and rising costs of youth custody, it remains to be seen how Scotland plans to deal with youth offenders in the coming years.