are other alternatives for these young men I would like to know what they are,” says a Scottish sheriff who laments the end of the Airborne Initiative. As an alternative to jail he can now think of no equivalent project that will remove criminals from the community and try to make sure they return as better citizens.
Not every sheriff in Scotland would agree, but this lawman believes Airborne served a similar function as jail, but did it better. “It is a significant loss to me as a sentencer,” he says. “I haven’t sent anyone to Airborne who otherwise would have had anything open to them other than jail.
“If they do end up in jail, we know 79% will re-offend. That is broadly what they are condemning society to. If they went to Airborne, only 21% re-offend. Try explaining this closure to the people who get houses and cars tanned in or are assaulted as a result.”
The First Minister is confident that he has that ex planation … so confident that he repeats it whenever he gets the chance. “Enough is enough” is Jack McConnell’s uncompromising rhetoric on youth crime and anti-social behaviour.
Confronted at a public meeting by a Glasgow teenager who felt a whole generation was being branded antisocial by the Executive , McConnell was unbending. Tougher sentences, more police or extra community resources would not alone be enough, but he was determined to provide them.
His stance chimes with public opinion. A staggering 96% of voters, according to a poll in The Herald, approve of the Executive’s flagship policy of targeting antisocial behaviour.
The Executive’s planned new Anti-social Behaviour Bill could see children as young as 12 electronically tagged, and older teenagers facing on-the-spot fines for offences such as urinating in public and breach of the peace. It would also give police the power to disperse groups of young people loitering in the streets. Police will also be able to ban groups of youngsters from publicised hotspots for three months.
Somehow, sending delinquents canoeing on national television at the taxpayers’ expense does not fit into the lexicon.
For McConnell and the Executive this get-tough stance became one of the major planks that they believed could propel them to a second term. The Scottish Labour Party don’t have funding to carry out regular focus group work, but in the run-up to the 2003 Scottish election they found burgeoning evidence of public concern on crime. This was particularly true among older, working-class voters, the very group most likely to turn out in large numbers and vote Labour.
Westminster MPs used to get letters about dog fouling and surgeries full of people complaining about council housing and state services. Now MSPs in the parliament had more and more people complaining about gangs of teenagers running riot, vandalism and broken windows.
When Pollok MSP Johann Lamont arranged a public meeting on the subject, more than 1000 locals packed the hall to voice their concerns. At a time when many of the Executive’s achievements had been the result of LibDem initiatives , it was important that Labour were seen to respond to the concerns of its people.
“At that stage, although people felt broadly disposed towards the Scottish parliament, not many could list what it had done,” says political analyst Gerry Hassan. “Labour decided they had to do something to get noticed and to prove that they could do something for their supporters. They came up with a very stark message that boiled down to being tough on kids who step out of line. You cannot get past this point with Scottish Labour politicians now. They say this is what ‘our’ people want.”
The political climate in Scottish Labour politics that dictates against anything other than the harshest treatment of young offenders stems from all that.
Corporal punishment and the re-introduction of national service were the most popular responses to youth crime voiced during meetings during the public con sultation process into the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill. The philosophy behind Airborne has little in common with that public mood.
When the project closes, there will still be a number of local programmes delivering services for young offenders , but few are residential and those taking part return each day to the same environment in which they carried out their crimes.
The organisation most likely to benefit from the demise of Airborne, financially at least, is Constructs, a West Dunbartonshire project that has a demanding programme of supervised work, home visits, and group work. There are modules on alcohol and drugs, aggression and violence, victim awareness and employability. It’s demanding, according to the local council, but participants leave each day and go back into the environment in which they carried out their crimes in the first place.
An independent evaluation found positive indications with regard to reconvictions. This showed that for the sample group, 10% of completers were reconvicted within 6 months, 12% in 12 months.
Other intensive probation programmes run in Glasgow, Ayrshire and Fife. In Fife, the Youth Offending Strategy Team (YOST) project is used as an alternative to custody. The project is an intensive one-to-one programme for male and female offenders aged 16-20. It is intense head-on daily counselling and classes for about 40 youngsters a year, with about half of them completing the course. An assessment found: “The YOST programme is strong. It is a coherent and comprehensive attempt to deal with a difficult target group of offenders” and an effective alternative to custody.
The Fairbridge Venture Trust, which offers 20-day residential courses in outdoor activity and counselling, gets on quietly with its work in Applecross, Wester Ross. It takes male and female offenders, aged 16-25, who are on probation. There is a marked difference between Airborne and Venture Trust because attendance does not need to be a condition of a probation order and the programme is not used as an alternative to custody.
Nancy Loucks, an independent criminologist who assessed the Airborne project as a model for female offenders, is sure that other projects will take up the Airborne funding but will not take up the slack.
“It is the only programme that allows that amount of time, that intensity over such a period of weeks to confront all the issues,” she says.
“The difference is that the staff live with them 24 hours a day and that makes people focus on their own behaviour. There is no escape from the consequence of their behaviour, which is not the case when they’re in the community or in prison. They do begin to respect the staff and if that happens then they can make progress. There really is nothing to take its place.”
Of course, expert opinion of Airborne – an indeed on all forms of sentencing of criminals – remains divided. There are some experts who believe there is nothing the justice system can do to make a difference.
“Jail doesn’t change people’s behaviour and many of the social work alternatives don’t change behaviour,” says Robert Black, professor of Law at Edinburgh University.
‘‘People do it themselves when they find a responsible wife or girlfriend, or they will spend the rest of their lives in jail. It’s usually in their early 20s when they don’t want to keep going back into jail. They either make that decision or they don’t, but it’s their decision to make and the criminal justice system has virtually no influence at all. Judges and do-gooders do not make a difference.” 15 February 2004